Robert Crais has long been one of the finest American crime writers, but he has won new praise and new fans with a surprising new character: a fearless 85-pound German shepherd. Maggie is a K-9 dog with the Los Angeles Police Department’s bomb squad and has bonded deeply with K-9 Officer Scott James. Both are combat veterans of Afghanistan, and each would kill — or die — for the other. They were introduced in Crais’s 2013 novel “Suspect ,” and together they help make his new novel, “The Promise,” one of the most entertaining thrillers of the year.
Scott and Maggie are only part of the story, of course. As with most of Crais’s novels — “The Promise” is his 20th — his star is wisecracking private eye Elvis Cole. As the book begins, Cole is hired to find Amy Breslyn, whose son was killed by a terrorist’s bomb in Nigeria. Half-mad with grief, Amy has reached out to Los Angeles gangsters who say they will put her in contact with terrorists who can answer questions about her son’s death. Because she’s an expert on explosives, she can promise the terrorists weapons they urgently want in exchange for their information.
Cole’s search for Amy leads him to a cache of explosives. That brings Scott James and Maggie into the story, because of Maggie’s bomb-sniffing skills. The trouble-prone Cole is soon at odds with both the LAPD and the Department of Homeland Security. When a senior official of DHS shows Cole his photo ID, the detective quips, “Nice picture. Makes you look tough.”
Scott and Maggie are soon threatened by a killer whose golden rule is “Never leave a witness.” Scott and Maggie, alas, were witnesses who saw him leave a murder scene. The man’s effort to poison Maggie leads to one of the book’s most moving moments, when Scott says, in rage and disbelief, “He tried to kill my dog.” As far as Scott is concerned, this is enough to justify revenge.
“The Promise” is filled with suspense, surprises and ably drawn characters, but its most fascinating moments involve Maggie. We learn that she was wounded in Afghanistan, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and dreams of her first handler, a Marine who was killed there, after which she came home and partnered with Scott. Maggie has been conditioned to protect a human partner, and the novel shows how law enforcement makes excellent use of her loyalty and skill.
There is, for example, her remarkable sense of smell: “With more than two hundred million scent receptors in her long shepherd’s nose, and almost a fourth of her brain devoted to her sense of smell, Maggie could recognize scents so faint they were measured in parts per trillion.” Moreover, the dog can hear “the whine of a jet at thirty thousand feet, termites chewing through wood, the crystal in Scott’s watch hum, and thousands of sounds as invisible to Scott as the scents he could not smell.”
She is thus poised for action when she senses danger to Scott:
“The fur on her back and shoulders bristled like wire, and her nails raked the asphalt like claws. A danger she couldn’t see or hear or smell was coming, but a fire passed down from a hundred thousand past generations prepared her. Maggie knew what she needed to know.
“Pull the threat down with her fangs, and destroy it.
“Maggie didn’t need to know anything else.
“Nothing else mattered.”
Maggie is both a superhero and a wonderful character. The Mystery Writers of America last year honored Crais with its Grand Master Award, putting him in the company of such greats as James Lee Burke, Sue Grafton, Stephen King and Elmore Leonard. “The Promise” shows once again why he belongs there.
Patrick Anderson regularly reviews mysteries and thrillers for Book World.
By Robert Crais
Putnam. 402 pp. $27.95