Monday, July 11, 2011

Joe Pike's Spotlight - "The First Rule" and "The Sentry"

In previous posts like this one, I’ve made it pretty clear that I think Robert Crais’ “L.A. Requiem” is the best book Crais has written, and is in fact a masterpiece, one of the great detective novels of the 20th century.

I’ve often wondered what happens when an artist – writer, musician, filmmaker, etc. – produces a work in mid-career that is almost universally recognized as a masterpiece. Do they ask themselves questions along the lines of “My God, how am I going to top this?” In the case of Robert Crais, I think he realized exactly what he’d done. It’s not that I know him, or have heard him interviewed on this topic. But it has to mean something that neither of the two books that immediately followed “Requiem” – “Demolition Angel” and “Hostage” – featured his long-standing characters, Elvis Cole and Joe Pike.

Now, more than a decade has passed since the release of “L.A. Requiem,” and Crais has written six books featuring Cole and Pike. Three – “The Last Detective,” “The Forgotten Man,” and “Chasing Darkness” – have had Cole in the lead, and three – “The Watchman,” “The First Rule,” and “The Sentry” – have elevated Pike to the top spot. Having Pike in the lead was a new development for Crais, although there is no question that “Requiem” belonged to Pike just as much as it did Cole.

My initial reaction to the first of the post-“Requiem” books was one of mild disappointment. Yes, they were all good, but none of them were as good as “the masterpiece.” It was only on a later reading, as well as a re-reading of the some of the early Cole/Pike books, that I began to understand and appreciate what Crais was doing - something I would describe as distilling each story down to its bare essence. And now, I would go so far as to make the bold statement that these last six Cole/Pike books (and “Requiem”) are the true heirs to the kind of hard-boiled fiction that hasn’t been written since the heyday of Dashiell Hammett.

The differences in the pre- and post-“Requiem” books are subtle, but important. The humor remains, but plays less of a role than it did before. In terms of the plots, each of them directly involves Cole and/or Pike in a way that wasn’t seen before – so that there is more at stake for the two characters now than there was in the older books. The stories directly touch the lives of Elvis and Joe in a way that they didn’t quite reach before.

Which brings me to the most recent Crais books, “The First Rule” and “The Sentry.” Both are billed as “Joe Pike novels,” but Elvis Cole plays a key role in both. And having read them back-to-back, I can say with some confidence that when Crais wants to get really hard-boiled, he goes with Pike in the lead.

In each of these books, Crais takes Joe Pike to places I don’t think he’s been before. Anyone who has ever read a Crais book knows that Pike is a force of nature as much as he is a man. Enigmatic, a man of few words, and one with few friends, Pike is fiercely devoted to his own view of what constitutes justice, and uniquely qualified to instill his will upon others. In these two books, Crais shows us more of the human side of Joe than we’ve seen before – even deeper than the glimpses of his past that made “Requiem” such a special book.

In “The First Rule,” the theme is Pike as Avenger. In “The Sentry,” the theme is Pike as protector. Nothing new there, perhaps. But the motivations are critical – in the former book, Pike is seeking to avenge the death of an old comrade and that of his family, victims of a brutal killing. In the latter, he is protecting a woman with the deck stacked against her – because he sees something in her that might, just might, be able to fill a hole in his own life. Of course, with any Cole/Pike book, you know that there are going to be twists and turns, to the point where nothing may be quite as it seems. That is particularly true in “The Sentry,” as Pike (and then Cole) realize that they are up against forces that they could not have imagined at the beginning of the story. Of course, now that I think about it, that’s pretty much the case in “The First Rule” as well.

Both plots move crisply, and with precision. The relationship between Pike and Cole has depth. The villains are nasty, but not in a Snidely Whiplash kind of way. Nothing is ever quite black and white. And as previously mentioned, we get to see Pike in a way that we’ve not seen before. An excerpt from “The First Rule” makes that point – Joe Pike with, of all things, a baby.

Pike jiggled the boy.

The boy laughed, then pulled off Pike’s sunglasses. The last person who took Pike’s shades bought a three-week stay in the hospital. The boy waved them like a rattle.

Cole said, “What about the baby?”

Pike jiggled the kid again, and let the little guy punch him. Pike was fascinated by his eyes. He wondered what the boy saw, and why he took delight in those things.

“He needs someone who’ll take care of him.”

“And that’s you?”

“Not me, but someone. Everyone needs someone.”

“Even you?”

Pike studied his friend for a moment, then gently took back his glasses. He didn’t put them on. The boy seemed to like him without them.

What each of these books makes clear is that there are plenty of new directions for Crais to take Elvis Cole and Joe Pike. I look forward to reading what they are.

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