VINE VOICEon 15 July 2004
If you have yet to begin the marvelous Elvis Cole series by Robert Crais, you've got a great treat ahead of you! Few series get off to a stronger start than Mr. Crais did with The Monkey's Raincoat, which won both the Anthony and Macavity awards for best novel while being nominated for the Edgar and Shamus awards as well. Stalking the Angel followed powerfully with classic noir style of the 1930s hard-boiled detective up against evil moderated with wise cracks. Lullaby Town updated the 1930s detective stories about Hollywood, and kept the same cynicism about Tinsel Town. Free Fall looked hard at the corruptibility of the police and found them wanting. Voodoo River added a love interest for Elvis to make him more vulnerable and appealing. And the books just keep getting better from there in their characterizations, action, story-telling and excitement.
Elvis Cole is the star attraction, the co-owner of The Elvis Cole Detective Agency. He's now 40ish, ex-Army, served in Vietnam, ex-security guard, has two years of college, learned to be a detective by working under George Feider, a licensed P.I. for over 40 years, does martial arts as enthusiastically as most people do lunch, and is fearless but not foolish. He's out to right the wrongs of the world as much as he is to earn a living. Elvis has a thing for Disney characters (including a Pinocchio clock), kids, cats, scared clients and rapid fire repartee. He drives a Jamaica yellow 1966 Corvette Stingray convertible, and usually carries a Dan Wesson .38 Special.
His main foil is partner, Joe Pike, an ex-Marine, ex-cop who moves quietly and mysteriously wearing shades even in the dark . . . when he's not scaring the bad guys with the red arrows tattooed on his deltoids, which are usually bare in sleeveless shirts. Although he has an office with Elvis, Pike spends all of his time at his gun shop when not routing the bad guys with martial arts while carrying and often using enough firepower to stop a tank. Pike rarely speaks . . . and never smiles. A standing gag is trying to catch Pike with a little twitch of his lips indicating he might possibly be amused. But he's there when you need him. He drives a spotless red Jeep.
Robert Parker's Spenser is the obvious character parallel for Elvis, but Spenser and Elvis are different in some ways. Cole is more solitary, usually being alone when he's not working. Cole is very much L.A. and Spenser is ultra blue collar Boston. Cole is martial arts while Spenser boxes and jogs. What they have in common is that they're both out to do the right thing, with money being unimportant. They both love to crack wise as they take on the bad guys. The bad guys hate the "humor" in both cases, and can't do much about it. The dialogue written for each is intensely rich.
Mr. Crais has a special talent for making you care about his characters, especially the clients and their kids. You'll want to know what happens to them. With a lot of experience in script writing, Mr. Crais also knows how to set the scene physically and make you feel it. He may be out finest fiction writer about physical movement. He gives you all the clues to picture what's going on . . . but draws back from giving so much detail that you can't use your own imagination to make things better.
On to Sunset Express, the sixth book in the series. The title refers life in the fast lane of the Southern California rich and famous.
The book opens with a fast-moving prologue in which a murder victim is found in the hills just off Mulholland Drive overlooking L.A., the police follow up, and the murder weapon used to kill Susan Martin is found near her home. The husband looks to be good for the crime. But he's Teddy Martin, celebrity restauranteur to the stars. That's a problem. As Detective Sergeant Dan "Tommy" Tomsic observes, "It's easier to cut off your own . . . leg than convict a rich man in this state, detective."
Elvis is hired by Martin's legendary defense attorney, Jonathan Green, to check out whether one of the detectives, Angela Rossi, may have planted the murder weapon at the Martin home. She checks out clean, and then Elvis is given suspect leads to follow up. One of the leads quickly turns up two dead suspects. Suddenly, Green and his associates are spending more time smearing Ms. Rossi and manipulating the press than they are finding the guilty parties. What gives? Angered, Elvis quits and looks to right the wrong.
Unless you've been away on another planet for the last 20 years, you will notice some parallels to the OJ Simpson case. The plot is quite inventive in working out the details in another way, however. In fact, this story is very much in the John Grisham school of dirty lawyer tales. There's not much mystery here, but a lot of good plot and character development. I graded the book down for insufficient mystery. In this story, it's Lucy who becomes a more complex and interesting character.
The main appeal of this book to me was Elvis sandwiching in a visit from Lucy Chenier, the Louisiana lawyer from Voodoo River, and her son, Ben. It made Elvis more real and appealing as a character.
This book is structured like a short story (the initial crime investigation) and three connected novellas (Elvis working for the lawyers, Elvis entertaining Lucy and Ben, and Elvis working against the lawyers).
After you finish the book, I suggest that you think about the dangers inherent in our society's cult of celebrities. Where could you improve your life by paying more attention to sound values than to what is popular on television?