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Books: Sidekick Joe Pike takes the lead in 'The First Rule' by Robert Crais

By Patrick Anderson
Monday, January 18, 2010; C02

THE FIRST RULE

By Robert Crais

Putnam. 308 pp. $26.95

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Robert Crais is one of a handful of crime writers -- others include Lee Child and T. Jefferson Parker -- who year after year produce highly readable novels of action and suspense. Most of Crais's 16 novels have featured the Los Angeles PI Elvis Cole, backed up by his friend and partner, Joe Pike. The two are quite different: Cole is plenty tough but essentially a genial fellow who wears Hawaiian shirts, has a Mickey Mouse phone on his desk and has been known to crack jokes. Pike, by contrast, is silent, alienated, a warrior -- primordial, Crais has called him. In most of the books, Pike's main role has been to watch Cole's back.

But the series has begun to change. The 14th novel, "The Watchman," was the first to feature Pike, with Cole in a secondary role, and the new book, "The First Rule," also stars Pike. In its opening scene, four killers break into a home near UCLA and execute a man named Frank Meyer, his wife, their two sons and their teenage nanny. Meyer and Pike were once mercenaries fighting together in foreign lands, and when Pike hears of the killings, he knows immediately what he must do: find and destroy the men who killed his friend and his friend's family. To do so, he must challenge a Serbian crime gang, one of several Eastern European gangs operating in Los Angeles. He finds a Serbian prostitute who was the sister of the dead nanny, and she helps lead him to the crime boss.

There is a great deal of blood spilled along the way. It's a good plot, and Crais keeps it spinning with his accustomed skill. He's a stylist; his action scenes are not so much written as choreographed. Here's a brief one, after Pike has given a bowl of water to a starving pit bull: He "laid a hand on the dog's hard back, and the dog spun fast as a striking snake, exploding out of the water as it went for Pike's throat. The dog was fast, but Pike was faster, one instant beside the dog, the next a pace away, just out of reach. The dog clamped its jaws in a frenzy."

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this novel is Crais's decision to switch his emphasis, at least for now, from Cole to Pike. Crais said in an interview, "I just had so much fun being with Joe in 'The Watchman' that I wanted to do it again." It may be, of course, that Crais or his editors thought the lethal Pike has more commercial potential than the amiable Cole. We live in an age of superheroes -- even Tom Cruise has become a superhero -- and in focusing on Pike, Crais moves in that direction. In this novel he works hard to make Pike the stuff of myth: "Cole didn't hear the door open or close. This was just how Pike moved. As if he was so used to moving quietly he no longer touched the earth." And "the stillness in Pike was amazing." A hostile cop tells Pike, "I never met someone who's killed as many people as you, still walking free."

Crais's fellow novelist Lee Child recently wrote a candid essay that told how he came to create his character Jack Reacher. The essay appeared in "The Lineup," edited by Otto Penzler, in which leading crime writers explain what inspired their heroes. Child, who was 39 and determined to create a popular series, decided that too many writers had been making their protagonists "more and more flawed and vulnerable," given to drink, divorce and depression. In creating Jack Reacher, "I wanted to start over with an old-fashioned hero who had no problems and no issues." The formula worked; Reacher is a giant, uncomplicated killing machine and has been an immensely popular character -- or fantasy figure.

In featuring Pike, Crais moves in the direction of a Reacher-style superhero. These guys are the baddest dudes in town. Any crime boss or rapist or town bully who messes with them will soon be chopped liver. I have nothing against superheroes. At one point in my life, I was in heaven when I read about Superman, Plastic Man and Captain Marvel. But today I prefer heroes who are complex and vulnerable -- who are human. The flawed protagonists that Child rejected sounded a lot like Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch, whom many of us consider the finest of American crime-fighters. There's room for everyone, of course. It's fun to read about fellows who can jump over buildings and dodge bullets and walk without touching the ground. But the best characters are those who, for better or worse, remind us of ourselves.

Anderson reviews thrillers and mysteries regularly for The Post.

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