Friday, August 9, 2019

Thrillwaukee Focus: Robert Crais and "A Dangerous Man"

One of the things I like about mystery series is their placeyness. Laura Lippman knows Baltimore, William Kent Krueger is all about rural Minnesota, and Sarah Paretsky has kept most (but not all) of V.I. Warshawski's cases in Chicagoland. But when you're writing about Los Angeles, you have to compete with some bigwigs - Michael Connelly, Walter Mosley, James Ellroy, Ross MacDonald, Raymond Chandler, and Dorothy B. Hughes, an author who hits a lot of best-of lists, but is not as well known as some of these other writers. Her novels are currently being republished by New York Review of Books. It looks like her most noted title is In a Lonely Place. I'm told it's quite superior to the Humphrey Bogart adaptation.

The list goes on. My guess is that this is particularly fertile territory because, like New York, there are a lot of writers living there, and since many of them are screenwriters, the mystery/thriller works better as a genre than say, the linked short story collection from multiple perspectives.

One name that comes up again and again is Robert Crais, who has been writing Los Angeles mysteries since 1987. While many of you have read many of his books, his latest, A Dangerous Man, is only my second, following The Monkey's Raincoat, his first published novel in this very colorful Los Angeles series. And it's fascinatingly similar and yet different, much the way the mystery genre of the 1980s has morphed into the popular thrillers of today.

For one thing, while both books feature Elvis Cole and Joe Pike, their roles have reversed. In the early books, Elvis was the detective and star, while Joe was the sidekick. Elvis was quirky, dressed casually SoCal with a Disney-themed office. And one early novel's copy described Joe as sociopathic hardly the hero of a series. But that was then. Now Joe is more like a Hollywood action star, with the mandatory military credentials, a way with weapons, and the blessing of American secret forces of all stripes. He's shown in a much more positive light, hardly a sociopath. And Elvis is now like his gofer. At least in one of the action scenes, he shows he can carry a weapon. I was waiting for him to get kidnapped and have Joe save him. But that role is played by other actors here. 

In A Dangerous Man, the story starts with Joe being in the wrong place at the wrong time, a bank where two goons are getting ready to kidnap a teller. These hired hands don't know much, and when Joe goes after them, they don't have much of a chance. Isabel is a young woman who is trying to figure out what to do after the death of her mom. She's inherited the house, but living day to day. Her greatest solace is her childhood friend Carly and Carly's mom Joyce, who've become a second family.

But someone's after Isabel; she is not in the clear at all. And things get even stranger when the U.S. Marshalls enter the picture; her death is tied to the death of a retired Marshall in Palmdale, linked by the same killer syndicate. The villains might think Joe is a goon for hire, but really, he's just helping out because it's the right thing to do. In that way, he reminds me of Nick Petrie's Peter Ash, which is a good thing because Petrie is our conversation partner for Crais on Sunday, August 11, at Boswell. 

In this case, I'm not going to say too much more. This is not a "what did the book club think?" post, after all. I will note the action is fast-paced, the dialogue is prominent but doesn't overwhelm the story so much to seem like a film treatment (and since this is a series, you can't sell the film rights anyway, because somebody probably already owns Pike and Cole), and while it's probably lower-key in placeyness than the early Crais novels, there's still plenty of local color, from Los Feliz to Koreatown to Burbank to Malibu.

One thing I enjoyed about the Crais's work is how he tried to breathe life into his side characters. Witnesses, bit players, law enforcement folk all have their little tics that humanize them. Sometimes it gives them warmth, while other times they are infuriating. John Chen their inside person in forensics, is nothing short of a mess, but he's there when it counts. But really, has their been Crais novel when he went off the deep end, or is that coming in the future. Because he's definitely wired.

At this point in the game, writers with big names can submit passable stuff and still get substantial sales in mass merchants based on their past work. Others are using ghost writers, and just to show that writing can be a family business, it's not uncommon for the son or daughter of a series writer to take over the character. Being that Crais is writing only one book every two years, it's pretty clear he's still working hard.

And it appears that the extra year pays off. Reviews on Crais's books continue to be great. Kirkus Reviews wrote: "If you’ve always wished Lee Child’s Jack Reacher had a little more balance in his life - but the same formidable talents - you'll love Joe Pike and the latest book in this long, superb series." It's a trifecta of raves at the trades - Publishers Weekly and Booklist were also enthusiastic.

In the consumer press, Tom Nolan had this to say in The Wall Street Journal: "Mr. Crais unspools this tense and involving saga - which races all over the Los Angeles area, from the fading allure of the 'Miracle Mile' to the sun-blasted San Fernando Valley to the shores of Malibu - with dashes of wit, lots of local color, many bursts of sudden action and some 300 pages of relentless suspense."

So yes, Robert Crais is coming, for the first time to Boswell, this Sunday, August 11, 3 pm. As noted, he'll be in conversation with Nick Petrie (at left). This event is cosponsored by Crimespree. No signing restrictions, but if you have a pile of books to get signed, we'll ask you to wait until the end of the line. Over the years, Crais visited Mystery One many times, and sometimes Schwartz was able to get a second event as well. It's a homecoming, of sorts. The event is free, but we are registering through Saturday. Your click will help us make sure we've set out enough chairs. It's gonna be a good one! The link is

Future Thrillwaukee events:

Tuesday, August 13, 7 pm, at Boswell: Andrew Shaffer, author of Hope Never Dies and Hope Rides Again

Friday, August 16, 7 pm, at Boswell: Billy Jensen, author of Chase Darkness with Me, in conversation with Doug Gordon. Register at

Tuesday, August 22, 2 pm (note time), at Boswell: Patricia Skalka, author of Death by the Bay, the latest Dave Kubiak mystery

Sunday, September 8, 3 pm, at Boswell: William Kent Krueger, author of This Tender Land, the #1 Indie Next pick for September. Register at

Friday, October 4, 7 pm, at Boswell: Joe Hill, author of Full Throttle. This one is registration required at and it's almost sold out.

Monday, October 7, 7 pm, at Boswell: Craig Johnson, author of Land of Wolves, the latest in the Longmire series. Tickets at

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