Robert Crais honed his craft in television, notably Hill Street Blues, Cagney and Lacey, and Miami Vice. It shows in his writing. He sets his scenes quickly and without preamble, gets in and out, and his action flows as though Sam Peckinpaugh has blocked the scenes. Crais is one of my fallback writers, someone I’ll go to when I’m in a reading rut, or have tried something different and didn’t like it.
My reading for the past year or so has been anything but ruttish; this has led to my neglect of several favorites. I made a list of those writers I’d like to keep up with, but had fallen behind on. (James Lee Burke, John Connolly, Adrian McKinty—though American publishers’ lack of taste is primarily to blame for my falling behind on his books—Joe Wambaugh, and Scott Phillips, to name a handful.) Hard to believe it had been over two years since my last Crais, when I was so engrossed in Chasing Darkness I spent my arrival night at Bouchercon holed up in my room so i could finish before the conference started.
The First Rule is a Joe Pike novel. For those unaware, Crais’s recurring hero is private investigator Elvis Cole, who can be thought of as Sonny Crockett after a trip to Disneyland. Elvis has a Pinocchio clock, wears Hawaiian shirts, and generally plays the laid-back SoCal boy until someone riles him or a harder edge is needed.
Pike is Cole’s sidekick. He’s more like a white Hawk with advanced military training Jack Reacher would be proud of. Several years ago Crais gave him his own book (The Watchman), which was excellent.
The First Rule opens with the home invasion slaying of a family. The father, who runs an import business, was a close friend of Pike’s from his soldier-for-hire days. You see where this is going already, so I’ll leave the plot alone. Suffice to say, Crais takes you along a not wholly unexpected trip using detours you would not have guessed.
Personally, I like the Cole books a little better. The tone is more varied, the touch a little lighter. Cole plays an important part here, but Pike’s voice dominates the storytelling. The situation and Pike’s background bring him perilously close to killing machine territory. It’s to Crais’s credit he’s able to keep Pike as dominant as he is without making him a Brad Thor-like caricature.
Crais also does something a lot of writers could learn from. He’s been writing Cole and Pike books for 25 years. They were Vietnam veterans when the series began. The normal aging process would put them into their 60s now, too old to be believable. Crais keeps them the same indeterminate age by showing their backstories through cheesecloth. Vietnam participation is mentioned less often as the series progresses, until it disappears. Pike has now learned his killing skills in hot spots that were in the news fifteen years ago or thereabouts. Enough detail is provided for his history to seem real, but not enough to pin him down too definitely.
Crais has said repeatedly he’ll never allow Cole and Pike to become movies. he has an image of them in his head, his readers have their own images, and he doesn’t want casting and directorial choices to alter those images. (Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher, anyone?) I suspect Crais also doesn’t need the money. Still, it’s nice to see a master craftsman continue to write at the expected level, and to keep it up for as long as he has.
Is Crais a great writer? Does his prose rise to the level of Chandler, Hammett, Macdonald, McBain, or Leonard? Not really. He tells great stories very well, with never a seam or missed stitch, and does it all without seeming too slick. His acclaim and continued sales are well deserved.
(The Beloved Spouse notes I left out something. He’s also smoking hot.)