A Sidekick, Front and Center
Monday, March 5, 2007
By Robert Crais
Simon & Schuster. 292 pp. $25.95
Twenty years ago, after a successful career writing for television, Robert Crais published his first novel about the Los Angeles investigator Elvis Cole. Since then the Cole novels, notable for the precision and intensity of Crais's writing, have won more than their share of prizes and started turning up on bestseller lists. One of their strengths has been Cole's formidable sidekick, Joe Pike. Cole is plenty tough, but he's a jovial fellow who finds time to woo the ladies and toss off wisecracks. By contrast, Pike, ex-Marine and ex-L.A. cop, is a man of few words and lethal actions. Cole calls him a samurai. Now, in "The Watchman," the sidekick becomes the star.
In a lyrical opening scene, a rich, spoiled, sexy girl of 22 named Larkin Barkley is speeding along the deserted streets of Hollywood in her Aston Martin at 3 in the morning. "Light poles flicked past; red or green, it didn't matter and she didn't care. Honking horns were lost in the rush. Her long hair, the color of pennies, whipped and lashed." Her joy ride ends when she clips a Mercedes. Seeing that the people in it are injured, Larkin offers to call 911. Within days, gunmen are trying to kill her, because one of the men in the Mercedes was a mobster who now wants her dead. After FBI protection fails, perhaps because of leaks within its organization, Pike is called upon. The rest of the novel involves small armies of gunmen trying to find and kill Larkin, with Pike, backed by Elvis Cole, trying to fight them off and kill their boss.
Along the way, we learn more about Pike's background than the earlier novels revealed. When Joe was a child, his father brutally beat him and his mother until the boy was big enough to fight back. We see Pike as a young LAPD officer who began his career by killing a man who was about to stab his partner. Later he quit the force when loyalty to a friend demanded it: "He had loved that badge and everything it represented, but he had loved Wozniak's family more. Families needed to be protected."
Larkin resents Pike's no-nonsense manner and alternately insults and flirts with him, but Pike cares only about his duty to keep her alive. At one point, when he finds a lead to the gangster he thinks is behind the attacks, we have a moment of pure Joe Pike: "If Pike could ever know bliss, it filled him now, but he showed nothing. He had them. . . . All these bastards trying to kill this girl, this one girl, all of them ganged against her, and he would clear the field, but not for justice. It would be punishment. Punishment was justice." That's Pike: tough, pure, relentless and unforgiving. The FBI, the police, even the girl's craven billionaire father can't be trusted; only Pike, the warrior, truly cares for her.
This is Crais's 11th Cole-Pike book, and he's also written three stand-alones. They're all engrossing reads; he's a stylish writer, and no one choreographs violence with more skill. Still, I don't think this is one of his better efforts; "The Last Detective," four years ago, offered much the same plot but handled it better. One problem is Joe Chen, a foolish LAPD officer who variously worships and fears Pike. Chen is apparently intended as comic relief, but he's a mistake; when Pike is on top of his game, we don't want comedy or relief.
Pike's relationship with Larkin is also problematic. It's to be expected she will fall for this strong, silent samurai who's risking his life for her, and Crais makes the most of will-they-or-won't-they tension. Without giving that one away, I'll say only that her transition from spoiled rich girl to "one damn fine young woman" is too pat. Beyond that, it's way too touchy-feely when Pike shares thoughts like these about her tormentors: "He wanted to punish them badly enough that he would become his father to do it, and they would be him." I'm not sure we needed to know that Pike's father beat him. Is that motivation or a cliche? You can be a righteous dude who wants to kill evil men without having been an abused child.
I liked Pike better in his original role of sidekick, lethal and silent, with an aura of mystery about him. Less is more. Giving him a novel of his own was a worthy experiment, but Crais has done better in the past and almost certainly will in the future.