Robert Crais Man of Mystery
The writer of hard-boiled L.A. crime fiction puts Elvis Cole’s shadowy sidekick, Joe Pike, center stage again—and adds tender to tough by Megan Abbott / photographs by Eric Ray Davidson
The mythic association between dark deeds and bright sunshine in Southern California is a mystery genre unto itself. One of its chief practitioners is Robert Crais, and one of the style’s most thoughtful interpreters—and an Edgar Award–winning mystery writer herself—is Megan Abbott, whose NYU dissertation (published in 2002), The Street Was Mine: White Masculinity in Hard-boiled Fiction and Film Noir, centers on characters just like those in Crais’ works. So, who better to query the author on his newest novel? We thought so, too. —The Editors
“I guess somebody lost a dream,” an ambulance intern says at the close of The Little Sister (1949), Raymond Chandler’s brooding, pitch-black tale of the City of Angels. The novel proved a siren song for a teenage Robert Crais, who has now dedicated a string of crime tales to chronicling Los Angeles’ storied blend of sunshine and noir. Twelve of these novels have featured Crais’ private-investigator hero Elvis Cole, who eschews trench coats and a bottle of rye in his desk drawer for Hawaiian shirts, a Mickey Mouse phone and tai chi.
As the series has progressed, Cole’s enigmatic partner, Joe Pike, a former mercenary and the book’s darkest presence, has played a larger and larger role, eventually taking center stage in The Watchman (2007). This month, The First Rule, Crais’ second Joe Pike mystery, hits bookstores. From his home in his beloved L.A., Crais shared some of his thoughts on his characters—and the people who read about them...
Megan Abbott: After The Watchman, you said you wouldn’t write another Pike novel unless you found the right story. Now you’ve returned to him in The First Rule. How did you know this was the right story?
Robert Crais: As soon as I imagined Joe Pike holding a baby. My books come to me in images, and sometimes the image is at the beginning of the book, and sometimes it’s simply a flash somewhere in the middle. In The First Rule, the image that came was Joe and this small child alone in the desert and on the run. As soon as I saw it, I realized it was Joe who was the parent here. I knew I wanted to write that story, because I think that’s his ultimate desire. He isn’t simply a terminator, an automaton. At first glimpse, anyone would assume he’s just a double-Y-chromosome, stereotypical tough guy, but he’s so much more than that. Joe is a guy who deals with loneliness. What he really wants, like so many of us, is someone to love. Look at Raymond Chandler’s Red Wind, for instance. Forget crime fiction—I consider that one of the most beautiful stories ever written in literature. But I’ve often wondered, Why was Philip Marlowe so lonely? Why did he keep himself apart? I don’t have an answer, but these loner characters go all the way back to western fiction—and part of the hero’s journey for characters like these is to seek out love, seek out some sense of belonging and acceptance. Not that Joe Pike’s going to get married and have 2.4 kids.
Even though Cole has relationships with women, he and Pike create a sort of family of two, and they are, in many ways, the great romance of the series. Was that planned?
When I outlined the very first book, The Monkey’s Raincoat, Joe Pike was supposed to die at the end. And when I got there, I just couldn’t do it. I’d fallen in love with him by that point. So I wounded him instead, but that’s an indication of how little I was thinking of this as a series. Did I plan it out? No. But as I wrote, it became obvious to me that’s truly what these books were about: the friendship between these two men and how they depend on each other and how they help each other explore their own lives.
You’ve refused to sell the movie rights to Cole and Pike. It almost seems like a Philip Marlowe–style gesture, as when he refuses to take payment from a corrupt client. Is it an ethical stand or a creative one?
I think it’s probably more of a creative stand. Take the Raymond Chandler example. Think back to all the different films that have been made and the different actors who’ve played Marlowe. Now, in 2010, I wonder if it has had a deleterious effect on the way we view him. Maybe it has kept the books and the character alive longer than they would have been. But to me, books are special in that they are an incomplete art form. A film is projected on a screen, and you and I sit there and watch it, and if Bruce Willis is playing Elvis Cole, you look at him, and it sure looks like Bruce Willis to you and me. But a book isn’t complete until a reader reads it. That’s the magic of books. When you read one of my books or I read one of your books, we are, in fact, collaborating. I’m concerned a film might somehow insert itself into that. Maybe one day I’ll change my mind, but for now, I guess I’m just a little protective of that collaboration.
You’re frequently linked to Chandler and Ross Macdonald and that hardboiled-detective-novel tradition, where one good man can do the right thing and emerge untarnished. Is that tradition relevant today?
We’re all products of today. Lee Child, Mike Connelly—we’re writing about the world around us. Whether it’s a cop like Harry Bosch or Jack Ryan from Tom Clancy’s books, whenever you have that heroic protagonist, a story is a story, and to be relevant, you have to write about what it means to be a human being. How you do it and the choices you make vary. For some, my books are just kick-your-ass, high-speed thrillers. Others read them purely for the emotionality or the character turns. Each reader is going to find what he or she wants if I’m doing my job. And, hey, Joe Pike does things in my books that Philip Marlowe would never do. Joe torches people. He just out-and-out shoots them. There is a hardness to him that simply would not have been tolerated back in the pulp-fiction market of the ’30s and ’40s. He is way too edgy for that.
Yet—maybe surprisingly—Pike is very popular with female readers, and you have a large female readership. Do you keep this in mind when you write?
I don’t think about the gender of my readers or about reader expectations. I’m frankly scared to. I figured out a long time ago that if I tried to guess the audience, it would be like me trying to guess which stocks to buy. No one loses their money faster than me. So when it comes to Elvis and Joe, I have to trust my instincts, because they’ve gotten me here. And I have to write what I believe in, what I find moving. If I’m going to put a year of my life into a book—I’m not one of these guys who can knock them out in two months at the beach—it has to mean something. The fact that Elvis and Joe have an audience, especially among female readers, is an enormous compliment. And Joe Pike is sort of the classic bad boy. He’s the loner from the wrong side of the tracks who wears black and stands at the fringes. He’s got trouble written all over him. But I think a lot of women can see that wounded heart. Maybe they want to take care of it, and maybe they can. I take it as an indication that we are all on the same wavelength.
You’ve said you don’t miss writing for television, because you’re more suited to novels, disposition-wise. What is it about your disposition?
I write what I want to write. That’s one of the joys of books for me. When you’re writing in TV or film, it’s a collaboration, and it requires a lot of input. I don’t want to process. I don’t want notes. I’ve never worked with an editor where I didn’t have a 100 percent surety that they wanted the book to be the very best book it could be. We may not always agree, but I know they’re coming from that sincere and good place. I can’t say the same thing about Hollywood. I’ve had too many screenwriters—successful screenwriters, maybe with a touch of cynicism—say to me, “You know, my job is to get the 10 people sitting in the room to say yes.” I just find that tragic.
Is it hard to write about Los Angeles—such a fabled city—without slipping into City of Angels, City of Dreams mythology? Or is that mythology something you like to play with?
I love, love writing about Los Angeles. I love exploring every part of it. And I find rather than a burden, it’s actually one of the most enjoyable parts of the writing process for me. I love everything about L.A. Okay, not the traffic. But I love the way it looks. I love the geography. I love the diversity. It has its problems, but there is so much hope and energy in the air here. Remember, I’m one of a very fortunate few who came here chasing a dream and actually made that dream come true. That’s the magic of Los Angeles. All the differing people you find here, wherever they come from, they’ve come for exactly same reason I did. They’re chasing their own dream—whether it’s just a better life for their kids or regular work or the opportunity the U.S. and Los Angeles represent. We have that in common. That Hollywood sign is the most overused sign on the planet, but it does have power, because it’s the totem of all that. It represents that thing. Whether you are coming here to work or as some guy with a real-estate scam—whatever it is—you are just trying to build your life. And of course, whenever you have so many risking so much, so many after the same thing, so many so desperate, then you have a fabulous natural canvas for crime fiction.
Lately, there’s been discussion of a supposed new trend of so-called literary writers “crossing over” to crime fiction...
You mean like me?
Yes, and Denis Johnson, Kate Atkinson, Thomas Pynchon. They get a lot of attention and are often referred to as sort of “slumming” in crime fiction. How do you feel about this ghettoization of crime fiction?
Well, there’s nothing new about the ghettoization of crime fiction or any of the genres. A long time ago, Gore Vidal wrote three mysteries under the name Edgar Box and supposedly just knocked them out. To me, though, it has more to do with marketing than anything else. I guess there is a literary establishment, a self-selected group of people who have risen to certain positions and, for whatever reason, command a pulpit. I simply don’t think about that stuff. Readers are smart. They can see particularly flashy signs that might grab their attention. But readers tend to like what they like. If they relate to your work, then they’ll read it and return to it again and again. I put my faith and trust in the readers, and the reality is you just have to do what you do and do it as honestly and as truly as you can. If a publisher or Time magazine chooses to write articles about people who are sampling this particular type of water that I don’t really even see as a type of water, well, go ahead. I see it as a story. I write stories, they write stories—well, okay, bitch, bring it. We’ll put it out there, and we’ll see who likes what.
Do you think the trend might be because “literary” authors are envious of how many crime readers there are and how faithful genre readers can be?
My first response is, Hey, maybe [these writers] just like crime fiction. Lots of writers just dig it. And literary fiction is a genre, too. It has its own rules—exactly like crime, science fiction, fantasy, romance. If you read enough of it, you see what those rules are. I’ll bet you $10 right now that there are an awful lot of literary writers who started a long time ago and now they find themselves in this place where secretly they feel trapped. And you know what they really read for fun? They read crime fiction. And they start to think, God, wouldn’t it be fun—I mean maybe just fun—to write a big, blowout, kick-your-ass thriller? And maybe that’s the motivation. Maybe they just want to have a good time.
Story tends to dominate in other genres more than in literary fiction. The idea of a moving plot, that breathless plot you find especially in crime fiction. Is that part of the lure?
It may be all the way down to the DNA, to what our human sense of the notion of time and history is, but you want there to be an outcome, and you want it to be favorable to you. Think of the caveman and cavewoman sitting around thinking, Yesterday, I had a close call with the sabertooth. You don’t want to sit there in the dark night with crackling embers, fire dying, and think, Two o’clock on Wednesday—the tiger’s going to catch me and eat me. That’s not the ending you write for yourself. You want to kill the sabertooth. You want that release. You’ve protected your family. You’ve slain the dragon, so to speak. That’s a narrative. You start at a place in the beginning, and you play tag with the sabertooth. You have close calls. You may almost get taken, but in the end, you set the trap, and you kill the sabertooth. Whether you’re talking crime fiction, fantasy, romance, whatever, it’s about story. I think people have always created story, and there is in fact a sameness to the emotional payoff. But that sameness is defined by what it means to be a human animal. That’s why people want to tell stories, and that’s why they want to read stories. It’s how we make sense of our lives, how we say there is some fulfillment here. It isn’t simply a shadow in the darkness—gone and it meant nothing. There is closure. We can find peace.