Nearly twenty years ago now, I read the first six books in Robert Crais’s Elvis Cole series, and then stopped.
I’m not sure why. I enjoyed reading the novels, as far as I recall. I know, for a fact, that if I didn’t enjoy them, I would remember that. I believe it’s that embarrassment of riches thing again. There’s a lot of stuff out there that I want to read, and we’re all given just a finite amount of time. I own most of the Nero Wolfe books written by Rex Stout (and a couple of those written by Robert Goldsborough) and have still read only a dozen or so of those (loving each and every one). Likewise, I own a lot of Michael Connelly books I haven’t read yet, including a few Harry Bosches. There are other examples I could share, but I’ll stop there.
What I’m trying to say is this. Don’t equate the dearth of Robert Crais (pronounced like “chase”) books in my reading material over the last couple of decades with a dislike of the author. Crais is a great writer. He counts Chandler, Hammett and Hemingway among his influences. Also Robert B. Parker, one of my writing idols. Originally from Louisiana, Crais moved to Hollywood, California, when he was twenty-three year old and became a screenwriter. Even before I picked up one of his novels, I’m sure I saw his work on Baretta, Hill Street Blues, Cagney & Lacy, Quincy M.E., or Miami Vice (among others). His familiarity with Los Angeles and Hollywood is reflected in his work.
Elvis Cole, when first introduced in The Monkey’s Raincoat, struck me as a West Coast Spenser. Different, but cut from the same cloth. Wisecracking and glib, in many ways. As much a tour guide for his city of Los Angeles as Spenser is for Boston. Cole is more pop culture obsessed than Spenser, for certain, with his Mickey Mouse phone and Spider-Man coffee mug. He drives a bright yellow 1966 Corvette and lives in a cool A-frame in Laurel Canyon, has his own white Hawk in the form of Joe Pike, an ex-Marine gun shop owner who is a mute compared to the talkative Elvis.
The six novels in the series I read before this one were also structured similarly to Parker’s Spenser novels. First-person narrative. A murder investigation that twists and turns and builds to a final action sequence with a satisfying payoff. Good stuff.
I may own the in-between books as well. I’m not sure. I think the classification system in my library closet failed at some point and this was the first Crais book I picked up.
Somewhere between books #6 and #10, something changed. Elvis Cole seems different in this novel. Not better or worse. Just different.
It seems like Crais began experimenting with point-of-view even as far back as Sunset Express. He hasn’t abandoned the traditional private-investigator first-person perspective, but has supplemented it with different POV characters, including the bad guy in The Forgotten Man. Plus, the characterization is deeper, more emotional and raw. I’m not saying that Elvis Cole in the earlier novels was just a cartoon character with all of his characterization on the surface. But, compared to the Cole in this novel, I might consider saying that.
We have a tendency to fetishize the objects surrounding our fictional detective heroes. Thomas Magnum with his Detroit Tigers cap and red 308 Ferrari. Travis McGee with his houseboat in slip F-18 at Bahia Mar, Fort Lauderdale, and his installment-plan retirement. Nero Wolfe and his orchids and his brownstone with an ever-changing street address. Spenser with his gourmet cooking and obsessively macho physical training.
Maybe there’s still a little of that in The Forgotten Man, like the canyon house and Cole’s office near the Musso & Frank grill in Hollywood, but it seems like it’s only enough to remind us that this is the same character. I’m not sure about everything that’s happened in the three novels I skipped, but something has taken the series in a more serious direction. I guess I should add that there have been eight additional novels in the series since this one was published in 2005. This means Crais could have done a complete 180 since then and now Elvis Cole is all Disney props and Hawaiian shirts, although somehow I doubt it. Once an artist dips their toe in the serious pool, they tend to only wade in deeper. Look at Steven Spielberg.
In The Forgotten Man, we delve into Elvis Cole’s childhood after an old man dies of a gunshot wound, clutching a bunch of faded newspaper clippings and gasping his final words to a cop. The dead man claimed to be Cole’s long-lost father, according to the cop who found him in the alley. It seems that Cole never knew who his father was, and that his mother was a troubled person as well who frequently disappeared for long periods of time. The dead man could very well be Cole’s dad.
This is where the story kicks off. Of course, as is the case with all noir-ish thrillers, everything isn’t as it seems. People lie, hidden motivations come to the surface as way leads to way in the investigation. But, Elvis Cole is the “World’s Greatest Detective,” according to his press, and as he follows the case through its many twists and turns, he seems unconsciously to be trying to prove this, even though he doesn’t believe his own hype. He figures everything out, and things aren’t as black-and-white as the highly moralistic would like to believe. The final sequence is, true to form, violent and bloody.
One drawback with first-person fiction is that it seems to be a compact between author and reader that the viewpoint character lives through the events of the story. By shifting viewpoints occasionally, Crais removes that safety net for the reader. It is conceivable that Cole could die.
I’m not saying that he does, mind you. I’ve already told you that there have been eight additional novels added to the series since this one was published. Of course, they could all have been prequels. You never know.
I loved this novel. It’s given me the itch to read more of Crais’s stuff.
Not right this minute, of course. I have other stuff on deck. But, I’ll get around to it. Within a couple of decades, I’m sure.
Firewater’s All-the-World-Fell-and-Then-I-Was-Gone Report Card: A
After Hammett, Chandler and Macdonald, it’s a relatively short list: Crais is on it.