I don’t know how regular I’ll be about this, but it was an idea for this week, at least. I haven’t been that good at the book reviews, but then I feel like I don’t do a real good job of those. I spot what I like about a given book but forget to mention some of the things I don’t. Maybe I’ll still do that some, if only because there are lots of weeks I don’t know what to write about. I don’t like to get on the soapbox because this is not supposed to be a political blog, though I occasionally do when something’s been bothering me a lot. As a rule, though, I’d prefer to avoid that.
So, I’m gonna start this week with what I hope will be an occasional series talking about authors that inspire and/or influence me. We’ll see how it works out.
You’d think I might start with Stephen King, but I talk about him enough as it is. I’ve stated before that he’s the one who showed me you didn’t have to sound like an English Major with a thesaurus handy in order to write good prose. (We used to have a preacher who wrote to the Madison County Record who sounded like he really did keep one on hand. He used words I’d never heard of and, of course, he just came off sounding pretentious. Or should I say he sounded full of hot air?)
Another influential author is Robert Crais. Yeah, I’ve mentioned him before as well, but I’d like to go into a little more detail about him.
I don’t plan to profile authors so much as their work, because that’s what truly motivates me. There are certain authors that, when I read them, I want to run to the keyboard and pound out some words of my own. They inspire me not so much to write like them—I’m past that point where you copy your influences—as write up to their standard if I can. I don’t want to sound like Robert Crais or Stephen King, but both authors make me want to craft words of my own, to strive to make my work approach theirs.
Robert Crais writes mostly of LA private detective Elvis Cole. And even some of his non-Elvis novels connect, with the exceptions of The Two Minute Rule and Hostage.
Mr. Crais is from Louisiana originally, but he moved to LA, where he worked as a screenwriter. In that job, he wrote for such shows as Miami Vice, L.A. Law and Hill Street Blues. As I understand it, he turned to novels to escape the strictures of screenwriting.
The first Elvis Cole novel, The Monkey’s Raincoat, came out in 1987 and doesn’t even come close to what the later ones, such as L.A. Requiem are. But that’s to be expected. You hope a good author gets better as he goes along.
I’m actually of two minds about recommending you read the entire series. There are some elements that carry from one to the other, though not for the first few novels. On the other hand, you get to see how the characters evolve, especially Joe Pike, Elvis’s partner in the agency.
Joe is a former Marine with two combat tours and was in Force Recon. He’s done time as a mercenary, but only when he sees a cause he can get behind. He’s not your typical soldier-of-fortune. He owns a gun shop in Culver City, drives a red Jeep Cherokee, and has red arrows tattooed on both his deltoids. The idea is that he never looks back, but always moves forward. He’s quiet, taciturn, always wears mirror-lens sunglasses, even at night.
This kind of thing sound familiar? It will if you think about the decade Mr. Crais started writing about these guys. He makes Elvis—not only the main character but the narrator—more approachable. Elvis is a gourmet cook, drives a yellow 1966 Corvette Stingray, and practices yoga for exercise. How many 80s tough guys would be caught dead doing yoga?
Joe, on the other hand, is the typical tough guy, and you can see Crais’s influence from Robert B. Parker and his Spenser character. Spenser is also a gourmet cook who smarts off to everyone, though he’s something of a clothes horse where Elvis prefers shorts and Hawaiian-style shirts. In Joe Pike we have the tough guy sidekick that resembles Hawk from the Spenser books.
I haven’t been able to read all of Mr. Parker’s books, though I did read about three of the early ones. I’ll probably work my way through them, but from what I can see, Mr. Crais departed from his initial influence and charted his own course.
Again, what you’d expect from a good author.
If you read the series, you’ll see that there are reasons Joe is the way he is. He’s not that way just to be a tough guy. He’s a tough guy because he had to be. His father was an alcoholic, abusive father/husband. When Joe got big enough to beat his father up, the man never touched Joe or his mother again. But Joe left and never went back.
Elvis, on the other hand, was raised more by his grandparents because his father was absent and his mother would run off at times, saying she was going to bring his father back. Elvis had another name when he was born, but when he was about three, Elvis Presley hit the scene, and Cole’s mother was a huge fan, so she renamed him. If I remember correctly, eventually his mother was committed and he joined the Army.
Elvis and Joe are both Vietnam vets.
The way Elvis smarts off, both in the text and in dialogue with other characters, is what inspired me to make Lyle Villines the same way, though with a more Arkansas sense of humor. Another thing Elvis does is describe LA lovingly, but it’s true love, not the romantic kind. He sees its shortcomings, too, all its ugliness and its attractions. I try to do the same with the Ozarks.
The series takes a major turn for the better with L.A. Requiem. In that novel, Elvis and Joe’s friendship is put to the test when one of Joe’s old friends, Frank Garcia, calls on him to find out who killed his daughter, a former lover of Joe. Frank is rich, but he came up in the barrio as a member of the White Fence gang. Now, you can buy his convenience store Mexican food in pretty much every store in LA. He will spare no expense in solving the murder of his daughter.
Joe ends up becoming a suspect in the murder because the woman is actually one in a long line of girls killed by a serial killer—who looks just like Joe. Even drives a red Jeep. So Joe has to drop off the radar, doesn’t even contact Elvis. But Elvis never gives up believing in his friend, and the climax of the novel is both satisfying from the mystery point of view as well as emotionally.
You can see the series building up to this departure when Elvis takes a case that requires him to travel to Louisiana, where he meets an attorney named Lucy Chenier. Lucy eventually moves to LA, but their relationship doesn’t last. I know I’m giving a lot away, but I’m trying to make it just enough to pique your curiosity. There’s a lot of ground I’m not covering here.
Mr. Crais explores these kinds of subjects more and more, even giving Joe his own spinoff series starting with The Watchman. We get to find out more about how Joe thinks and what motivates him. Elvis makes cameos, of course, but he’s not the main character and we get to see what Joe does when he’s not with Elvis.
Mr. Crais says he doesn’t recommend you read these novels in order because he’d prefer you read what he’s writing now as opposed to seeing where he came from. I can understand his opinion, but as a writer I’d also say you might consider, at some point, reading in order as I did, if only to get the whole story and see how Mr. Crais evolved as a writer and his characters evolved as people.
There’s an emotional undercurrent in all the books since L.A. Requiem. The Forgotten Man is somewhat poignant when a man who claims to be Elvis’s father is discovered shot in an alley, pulling Elvis back to his childhood (this is where we find out a lot of his back story), while in the previous novel, The Last Detective, we learn of an incident from Elvis’s Vietnam service that’s having an effect on his life today. And, along the way, the books go from being typical mystery novels to something more. Sometimes we know who the culprit(s) is, sometimes we just think we do. In others, such as L.A. Requiem, we get tantalizing glimpses of the antagonist, but they only deepen the mystery.
I don’t know if I can ever achieve Mr. Crais’s level of writing or success, but he will continue to inspire me. And, if things work out, his agent, Aaron Priest, is looking at my first novel as I write this (though he may have rejected me by the time I post it), and wouldn’t it be awesome to share agents with one of your inspirations?
I’ll keep you posted. Meanwhile, if you want to see where crime novels can go without getting off-base, read Robert Crais. He might end up being the only crime writer you read.