American Eye

Each month, Michael Carlson, Britain's hardest-boiled American critic, brings to SHOTS a distinctive look at the detective genre, with an eye toward those aspects of it which reflect its development (and his!) on the other side of the pond.....the overlooked, the out of print, and of course, the best of the new....





I'm convinced that somewhere in Robert Crais' attic (if houses in Malibu actually have attics!) there is a portrait of Elvis Cole that looks very very old. I've been meeting up with Bob for interviews and catch-up and praise of his novels for something like 15 years now, and apart from reading glasses, he never seems to have aged. By contrast, both Cole and his partner Joe Pike have aged a bit, grown more experienced, and been battered about by the world. Crais' latest novel, The Sentry, is ostensibly a Joe Pike book, but as always Elvis is in the house, and in this one his role provides a crucial insight into what this series has always been about.

 Before going any further, be warned that there are a few spoilers in this interview, so if you haven't read The Sentry yet, go back and do that now. Meanwhile I'll explain that I met Bob on a cold Saturday afternoon in London. He had just flown back from Belfast, the last stop on a very successful tour, which sadly didn't include an event in London. Over a quick lunch we talked about many things besides his work, but we started the business end with my praising The Sentry and telling him I'd noticed something odd while I read it. After meeting him for the first time, I'd been tempted to visualise Cole as Crais himself, but Elvis had always refused fit the identikit image in my mind. But in The Sentry, for some reason, I did keep seeing Crais as Cole, and I had an inkling as to why...


Well, there are bits and pieces of me in all the characters, but do I try consciously to make Elvis like me? No, I'm a boring guy!

Maybe it's because he's trying to keep Joe from going over the edge...he's less a detective than...

He's the friend. You know, that's why the title. The Sentry isn't Joe Pike, it's Elvis—he's standing guard over his friend. The book is about loneliness, and friendship.

Which so many of your books have been about—and as relationships of all sorts disappear Elvis and Joe's is the one that has survived.

I think this is the first time in all the books that Elvis cries.

Twice no less...

And he cries for Joe's hurt...

The character of Dru Rayne, whom Joe falls for, has real potential as a femme fatale, a spider woman, whatever you want to call those film noir dames. But she's very much underplayed, and I wondered if you were tempted to flesh her out, as it were, give her more space...

When I was outlining the book she had more, but I ended up deleting scenes that I thought would slow the book down or be distracting. In a love story, the inclination is to show their moment, sharing a meal, in bed, but I felt 'this is Joe's love story, and Joe's different'.

He's so private...

Contained, and it had to be very contained, but very meaningful with her. So I gave them one scene, when they lock eyes, and they connect, and he looks for a wedding ring— I've never had a moment like that one in any book before either—and I thought that was enough. What he's in love with is the potential for them, the fantasy, like chasing the Maltese Falcon, and it turns out to be clay. Yet even when he knows what she is, he's still her champion.

And my favourite scene in the book is the one where he discovers her betrayal—it's a very cinematic one, you have him watching the swimming pool through binoculars and there she is and I could almost feel the cutaway to a close up of his eyes behind the lens, and behind.

Mirror, sunglasses (he laughs). I find a lot of my scenes are cinematically designed, but they're not written for the movies.

It comes out of your background in TV?

Oh, absolutely, that was my school and it was a great one. But I moved from that to novels to write so scenes like that would reflect more... I wanted to do a book this time where no one was who or what they seemed. I wanted a lot of surprising things—JackSsnow, the FBI agent, daniel, who I regretted killing off.


Because the book's about loneliess, and daniel grew out of that. He has only two friends, and they're both imaginary. I loved writing them, and again, I cut some more revealing scenes with them in order to tighten the book.

He reminded me of something John Connolly might have written, and Jack Snow seemed a Connolly-like name too...

He's gotten kinda into those ghost stories, and he's so good. You know I made my editor nervous, he was afraid I'd written a horror novel about werewolves in New Orleans, but then it turned out Daniel is crazy so that was all legit. But (grinning now) multiple personalities, I eat that shit up. Plus when you're writing a character like Joe Pike, you need to give him a worthy adversary., someone who's fearsome. Daniel's a killer, no he's a punisher, he's the guy the cartel sends when killing isn't good enough, someone certifiably mad.

It's funny, because the scenes with Joe and Daniel reminded me of the finale of Don Winslow's Savages

Isn’t don great? I keep waiting for his breakthrough—savages is a great book, got great reviews, it ought to be on top of the best seller lists.

Maybe the Frankie Machine movie? It's so hard to know what breaks a writer through. It seems different in every case. Must drive the marketing department crazy.

Frankie Machine is a great book. But you do ever know. Blood Work didn't do it for Mike Connelly, his stand-alone novels did, whereas Mystic River did it for Dennis Lehane. My own books have just grown steadily. I started to get traction around LA Requiem, which was my eighth of seventeen novels so far...and my one movie, Hostage, made absolutely no difference.

For some obvious reasons! I think it may have been that interview we did around the time of LA Requiem, though...every time we do, your books sell better.

You're good luck?

It's interesting you've never sold the film rights to Elvis and Joe...

Because I don't want their characters trapped by the filmmaker's vision. I want readers to imagine them for themselves.

Which says something for a guy who wrote characters like Baretta! But the Cartel has a notoriously long memory. Does Joe take on the Cartel next?

(laughs) no, but the next novel's going to be a mash-up, about 50/50 Elvis and Joe, telling two parallel story lines that are related, and I'm jazzed up about it, it's fascinating, the writing is another adventure for me, and hopefully for them.

And for us. Thanks Bob.


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