Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Robert Crais: "Chasing Darkness"

When considering Robert Crais, it’s easy to find the turning point where a reader can classify his books as “before and after.” That turning point is “L.A. Requiem,” which stands along with James Ellroy’s “L.A. Confidential” as the modern masterpiece of detective fiction. Crais wrote seven novels before “L.A. Requiem” and he’s written seven novels since, and even though he’s never written a bad one, it’s not likely that he’ll ever top “Requiem.” It’s that good.

The books preceding “L.A. Requiem” all featured Elvis Cole, a wise-cracking, Hawaiian shirt-wearing Vietnam Veteran, and his mysterious partner Joe Pike, a man of visceral force but one of few words. Pike played the perfect counterpart to the smart-aleck Cole – his wardrobe rarely deviating from his preferred t-shirt with the arms cut off and jeans, rarely talking, his eyes always hidden behind the reflector sunglasses that never leave his face. Cole, on the other hand, took the sarcastic and sardonic tendencies of Spade, Marlowe and Archer to their logical extreme, never missing an opportunity to make light of the situation, however dire, but leaving the reader always aware of a vulnerable side buried deep within.

“L.A. Requiem” stood above the books which came before it through the depth and gravitas that Crais added to both characters, particularly Pike. Through a series of flashbacks, the story of how a scared, young boy became Joe Pike is told, and that story drives the narrative of the novel, where much more is at stake than in the past - for the first time both Cole and Pike seem to be in over their heads, grappling with a case that threatens to take away everything they care about – up to and including their own lives.

After "L.A. Requiem," it’s almost as if Crais knew that he needed to take a breather from Cole and Pike. The next two books were stand-alone stories, one (“Demolition Angel”) featuring Carol Starkey, a chain-smoking member of the bomb squad who never quite came to terms with the fact that she was killed (and brought back to life, needless to say) by the bomb which killed her partner. Starkey has returned to play a supporting role in several Crais novels. The second stand-alone, “Hostage,” was turned into a movie with Bruce Willis, and it reads as if it was written to become the basis for an action movie (I don’t mean that as an insult).

Cole and Pike returned in three of Crais’ next four novels – “The Last Detective,” “The Forgotten Man,” and “The Watchman” (the latter which turned the tables by featuring Pike in the lead, with Cole playing second banana). All three were outstanding, and all dealt in one way or another with the ramifications of the events of “L.A. Requiem.” Perhaps sensing that it would be folly to try, none surpassed “Requiem” in terms of quality, but all carried within them a sense that things were now different. There is less joking from Cole, each case seems to have more is at stake, particularly on a personal level, and each man better understands than before his own mortality.

All of which brings us to Crais’ latest novel, “Chasing Darkness.” The book's premise is not original – in fact, it is strikingly similar to Michael Connelly’s 2006 novel, “Echo Park.” In that book, Harry Bosch must deal with a presumed mistake that he made years before that resulted in a serial killer remaining free to kill for years to come. In “Chasing Darkness,” Elvis Cole is confronted early on with the accusation that he made a mistake in a case three years ago, and because of that mistake a killer was set free and went on to claim two more victims. Cole knows that what he learned about the accused three years ago proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the man could not have been the killer, but now he must prove it all over again, not only to himself but to the family of the most recent victim.

As with the two most recent Cole books, the story no longer is about brave Elvis coming to the rescue of someone in distress. Now, his own character is at stake, and unlike the pre-“Requiem” books, there now is always a sense of doubt that things are going to turn out alright in the end. Pike is there to help, as is Carol Starkey, but until the very end the reader remains uncertain whether this will be a triumph that Elvis can truly celebrate. While I’d hesitate to classify it in the same category as Crais’ masterpiece, I do think - despite the lack of originality - that it is his best book since then. And for fans of the genre, that should be more than enough.

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