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Elvis has left the city
L.A. Requiem, the eighth and newest Elvis Cole novel by Robert Crais, is like a bride: it brings something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue. The old is the familiar pairing of Los Angeles private eye Elvis Cole and his partner, the violent yet noble Joe Pike. The new is that much of this story is told in third-person - some from Pike's point of view and some from an omniscient narrator's.
The borrowed is the fact that Crais has dipped into other genres to enliven this book. Departing from his standard mystery novel style, he has added a sinister and suspenseful thriller plot element . . . which of course we won't reveal here. And the blue is the uniform of the LAPD, which plays a very large role in the story as both villain and hero.
With seven solid novels behind him, and a growing legion of fans, why has Crais departed so boldly from what has worked before? Well, like his hero, he doesn't mind taking risks, if it's in a good cause. "I wanted to write a deeper book," Crais says. "The characters have been there for seven novels, but I felt the need to expand. I wanted to push out the boundaries of the way I write detective novels. I wanted a larger book."
In length, complexity, depth, and seriousness, he has succeeded. The many twists of the complicated plot take Elvis and Joe deep into Pike's past, a past that before this book has been only darkly hinted at.
"Joe's backstory has been growing for me," Crais says. "In general terms I've always known the type of home he grew up in. But the specifics of it I created when I was writing. That was one of the many adventures on this book."
Elvis's ongoing relationship with Louisiana lawyer Lucy Chenier also goes through some adventures, as Pike's problems intrude on her and Elvis in new and dangerous ways. "In this book, Elvis has to make tougher personal choices than he's ever had to make," Crais hints. "And Lucy is learning things about Joe that scare her, and then she drops that on Elvis. He has to make a choice."
Negotiating Elvis's psyche and developing a detailed history for the fascinating Pike, a former Marine and LAPD officer, was only one of the challenges Crais faced. The amount of investigative detail in L.A. Requiem adds police procedural to mystery and thriller in the cocktail that is the book.
"I've done ride-alongs with LAPD for years now," he says. "But for this book I learned more about more areas. I needed to know how homicide detectives work at a crime scene, how they interrelate with coroner's investigators, how Robbery-Homicide differs from a precinct's homicide desk, how a task force is structured."
To assist in that research, Crais called on the fruits of his first writing career for television. After moving to Los Angeles from Louisiana in the 1970s, Crais worked on scripts for many TV shows, including Quincy, Baretta, L.A. Law, Hill Street Blues, and Miami Vice. The law enforcement contacts and knowledge of police work that he gained have proved invaluable.
Also useful was his family history. Three uncles and two cousins are or were police officers. "I know that under the badge police are just like anyone else, except they know a kind of cynical truth about people that they carry with them."
This cynicism contrasts sharply with Cole's trademark optimism. His skills are not in clues and legwork, but in reading people, understanding motivations. Cole can smash down a door or take a villain with the best of them, but his tender side is more evident than his sidearm.
And after meeting Crais, who says "all my characters in one way or the other are me," one understands why. Elvis is the work he has aimed for since he was shooting Super-8 movies in his back yard in Baton Rouge, since he wrote short story after short story and got endless rejection slips. Elvis works out, likes to cook, and collects Disneyana. So does Crais.
What is not so apparent is that, as Crais puts it, "Joe is me, too. I can use Joe to explore some of the darker corners of me. In this book, though, I reveal to people that Joe is a very human, albeit controlled, person. Most people would point to Joe's past and say that he's not a law-abiding person. But Joe is a good man."
Crais grew up in Baton Rouge, a town he describes as solidly blue-collar, and one in which a creative kid who writes comics and short stories and who films movies is "the craziest kid in town. People don't grow up there wanting to become writers."
Crais broke that mold. "When you're 16 years old and you read Raymond Chandler for the first time, it knocks you over to think that a human being can do that on a page. It's like making magic. I said that's what I want to do."
He moved to Los Angeles after a series of odd jobs. He studied sample television scripts for format. Without a TV in his house, he hung out in department stores, watching shows and taking notes.
"Then I started writing scripts, I found an agent through a friend, and eventually one of them sold." But novels were still on his mind, two dust-gathering, self-described "horrible" manuscripts notwithstanding. Then, in 1985, in a real-life plot twist, Crais's father passed away.
"My mom was terrified. They had been married for 42 years and she had never written a check, never paid a bill. And we went through a period where our roles were reversed. It was while I was wrestling with that that Elvis Cole was born."
In The Monkey's Raincoat, published in 1987, Cole takes a woman named Ellen Lang under his wing after her husband is murdered and her son kidnapped. "I like to think that I was given a Calvin and Hobbes transmogrifier that converted me into Elvis and my mom into Ellen Lang," Crais says.
That sense of intimate caring, that feeling of assurance that comes through even amid Cole's wisecracks and attitude, is what makes the series so successful.
L.A. Requiem ends with Cole musing on the city he calls home, the city that, more than in any other Crais novel, plays a role equal to any character's. Cole almost revels in the transitory nature of the urban sprawl that is Los Angeles. Crais has the same feelings.
"All that stuff that he says at the end, that's my L.A.," he says. "People come here to make their dreams come true. That's why it's such a powerful and edgy place. There's such a sense of transition. Things have to change." Even detectives in novels and the way they are written. "Life for Elvis will only get more complicated," Crais concludes.
James Buckley, Jr., is an associate editor with NFL Publishing in Los Angeles. His latest sports book for kids, Eyewitness Football, will be published in September by DK Publishing and the NFL.