A Charred Landscape
Monday, June 30, 2008
By Robert Crais
Simon & Schuster. 273 pp. $25.95
At the start of Robert Crais's 11th Elvis Cole novel, a fire has broken out in the Hollywood Hills and is sweeping through Laurel Canyon. A young cop and an old cop on the scene "could smell the fire -- it was still a mile away, but a sick desert wind carried the promise of Hell." The young cop is awed that Joni Mitchell once lived nearby, but the other one doesn't give a damn. Their job is to go door to door and make sure people evacuate. We see snapshots of the chaos: "They passed a little girl following her mother to an SUV, the girl dragging a cat carrier so heavy she couldn't lift it. Her mother was crying." Finally, at one house, the policemen smell death. Inside, they find the body of a man, an apparent suicide, and nearby a scrapbook with gruesome photographs of seven women who appear to have been murdered.
Crais didn't have to set Laurel Canyon on fire. A deliveryman or the landlord could have found the body. But that raging fire previews what lies ahead: a world of sudden danger and surprises, the fulfillment of that early promise of Hell. Crais's private investigator, Elvis Cole, soon becomes involved in the case of the corpse with the scrapbook. The Los Angeles police insist that the dead man killed all seven of the women, and they thus claim to have exposed a serial killer. Cole, however, suspects that a senior police official is trying to close the cases to protect a prominent politician. At that point, I feared we were entering territory -- high-level corruption in the LAPD -- that we've often seen before, notably in Michael Connelly's novels. But Crais's story keeps veering off in unexpected directions. You won't guess the ending of "Chasing Darkness," but you'll probably be intrigued by it.
Along the way, there's some fine writing. At one point, Cole enters the world of a rich Hispanic power broker and the politicians and fixers he controls. It's a dead-on glimpse of backroom politics. One fixer says of political donors: "They make the investment now, they get the favors later. Politics is like Oz, only you never see the magician behind the curtain." I don't put Crais in the first rank of today's crime writers, because I don't think his work has the extra dimension that distinguishes the very best of the genre: Connelly's characterization of Harry Bosch, for example, or the portrait of black Washington in George Pelecanos's novels. But I would include Crais, along with Lee Childs, T. Jefferson Parker and numerous others, in the next rank -- writers whose books are almost always intelligent, expertly written and a pleasure to read.
Elvis Cole operates on a human scale. He has his quirks: a Pinocchio clock on his wall, a Mickey Mouse phone on his desk and a cat he's been known to talk to. He's smart and not notably violent, in part because he has his lethal sidekick, Joe Pike, to watch his back. Crais knows Los Angeles well, and he creates a vivid gallery of sinister and surprising characters for Cole to encounter as goes his stubborn way. Cole sees "chasing darkness" -- combating the evil of the world -- as his mission, much as Connelly's Harry Bosch has embraced the "blue religion" of police work. The Cole books are first-rate entertainment. If you don't know them, this one is a good starting point.