Los Angeles is the magic kingdom," says crime novelist Robert Crais, who sets most of his books there. "It's not the end or the junkyard of America, it's the beginning of the future. Every time you have this many people risking themselves to change their dreams, you have a startling canvas on which to paint your fiction. I came here to find my dream." Crais is the author of vivid, action-filled detective novels featuring Los Angeles PI Elvis Cole, and of two highly praised thrillers, Demolition Angel (2000) and Hostage (2001). His new novel, The Last Detective (Doubleday), is an Elvis Cole that demonstrates Crais's continuing evolution as a serious writer. It's intense, expertly written and paced, with a complex plot that explores honor, loyalty, violence and vengeance, and shifting points of view, a technique Crais first used in the outstanding L.A. Requiem (1999).
As with most of Crais's novels, there is a child in jeopardy in The Last Detective. All of his books place Cole in the position of caretaker as well as crime solver. Whether it's a woman whose love for her fiancé persuades him to continue a dead-end investigation (Free Fall, 1993) or three youngsters whose father has disappeared (Indigo Slam, 1997), these helpless victims are more important to Cole than his fee. Elvis's compassion for the weak is the product of a lost childhood, which is examined in this most recent novel.
"I always wanted to be a storyteller," Crais says. "As a boy I was captivated by movies, comic books, TV, but what really lit my fire was, when I was 15, I found a copy of Raymond Chandler's The Little Sister in a used-book store. I fell in love with L.A. and Chandler. I knew that I wanted to go to L.A. and write like that one day." The mood and narrative voice of Crais's books reveal the influence of Chandler and another Crais favorite, Ross Macdonald. As Macdonald explored California's post-WWII social and emotional terrain, so Crais digs into the structure of Southern California society, using idiosyncratic details and incisive descriptions to paint L.A. and its people in vibrant color. He brings a palpable sense of place and immediacy that only Michael Connelly and James Ellroy approach.
Crais, 49, came to California in 1976 from Baton Rouge, La., where he grew up an only child in a family of oil refinery workers and policemen. With the bravado of the young, he bought old TV scripts and taught himself to write for television. "I found it effortless compared with prose writing," he says. "I compiled 116 rejections before I sold my first short story, but I sold my second TV script." For nine years, he wrote and produced some of the most popular TV detective series, such as Baretta, Hill Street Blues and Cagney & Lacey, as well as five TV movies and miniseries and several pilots. But the collaborative nature of television wore thin. "I wanted at the end of the day to paint the canvas with whatever colors I chose to paint with. I continually thought about books and finally I reached a point where I had a story to tell and characters I wanted to spend a year with."
Those characters were Elvis Cole and Joe Pike. Cole is independent, smart-mouthed, tough, but also cognizant of the fragility of the human psyche. "He shares a lot with me," says Crais, "my sense of humor and irony, my love of loud shirts. The PI character field is very broad, and I wanted readers to know that simply by his name, there was going to be something different with this character." His unlicensed partner, Joe Pike, is literally Elvis's dark side—clad in black with dark glasses; taciturn, stealthy, with a menacing demeanor, a violent nature.
Crais's first novel, The Monkey's Raincoat (1987), won both the Anthony and Macavity awards for best paperback original. Sunset Express (1996) won the Shamus Award for best novel. His books have been nominated for Edgars and appear on the New York Times list of notable books of the year. Yet Crais is constantly testing himself. "It's very important to me to push out my boundaries as a writer, to be the best writer I can." The books show his development from the traditional first-person narrative in the early Cole novels to the byzantine plot and multiple sensibilities of L.A. Requiem, his eighth book. "I knew I had a larger story writing L.A. Requiem because it was Joe Pike's story," Crais says. Although unsure of it's reception, he persisted. "I'm not good at accepting limitations. I'm always trying new techniques and new forms." The very successful Demolition Angel was written in the third person from a woman's viewpoint.
Published by Bantam, then Hyperion, he feels he found his home when his agent, Aaron Priest, brought him to Doubleday editor Steve Rubin. "I joined Doubleday with L.A. Requiem," Crais says. "Steve read the manuscript and immediately knew what I was trying to do, not only with that particular novel but my interpretation of crime fiction. He understood in a way that no one else ever had. He has been amazing for my career."
Crais has completed the screenplays for both Demolition Angel and Hostage. "It was much harder than I thought to turn my own novel into a screenplay," he says. "Literally, you leave the book behind and return to the essence of the story." Now he's making notes for another suspense thriller and an Elvis Cole novel. "I have no sense of fatigue," he says. "The insane part of being a writer is that things take on a life of their own. Writing is an obsession, it becomes the measure by which the rest of your life is judged. I think of it as falling into my Mac—my version of Alice falling down the hole."