I’ve been a fan of Robert Crais’s Elvis Cole private eye series since it debuted in The Monkey’s Raincoat back in 1987. The thing that immediately caught my attention was the mirror sunglasses on the cover that showed the unmistakable image of Jiminy Cricket standing next to a double-edged razor blade. On Stalking The Angel, the second book in the series, it was the silhouette of Mickey Mouse holding a gun.
Robert B. Parker and Raymond Chandler permanently warped my mind for the wicked retorts and one-liners Spenser and Philip Marlowe (the authors’ respective characters) were fond of. I can’t help myself. I love detectives who get caught between the bad guys and the cops to save a client who isn’t quite innocent but doesn’t deserve to be given up to the devil.
Elvis Cole, the self-proclaimed World’s Greatest Detective, is irreverent, witty, driven, and self-assured. More so in the beginning of the series than in recent books after tragedy has hit him again and again.
Every private eye from the 1980s onward, though, has had to have a combative second, a darker side who will do things the private eye won’t do. Someone who will unflinchingly step over lines and rules the private eye has set for himself/herself.
Spenser has Hawk. Harlan Coben’s sports agent Myron Bolitar has Windsor Horne Lockwood III – “Win.” Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro, Dennis Lehane’s detectives, have Bubba. Elvis Cole has Joe Pike, his invisible partner who can be counted on to help Elvis pick up the pieces every time an investigation goes south or turns bloody.
For much of the thus far ten-book series, Joe Pike has been an enigma. We saw part of him step on to stage in L.A. Requiem and The Last Detective, but we’ve never really gotten a true look behind those mirror shades Pike wears even at night.
We know from the books that Pike, like Elvis, is a veteran of the Vietnam War. He’s an ex-cop from the Los Angeles Police Department who all the other cops hate. He’s a trained mercenary. He owns different business interests that no one knows about. He’s fastidious. He doesn’t let anyone into his life, and even Elvis only gets his friendship and not much of Pike’s history.
He wears sweatshirts with the sleeves hacked off. He has red arrows tattooed on his deltoids. The arrows point forward. Because Joe Pike never backs up.
I love Elvis Cole, but Joe Pike is the guy I really want to get to know. He’s quick and dangerous. He kills without hesitation or remorse. He fights for the underdog and leaves everything on the field, never holding back.
In L.A. Requiem readers discovered that Pike had an abusive father. It was that relationship that set the tone for Pike. He became autonomous and complete on his own. Unfortunately he also became an island, a no man’s land where people could visit but could never stay. Even Elvis Cole, the best friend that Pike ever had, can’t get in all the way.
But Crais is generous in his newest release, The Watchman. It’s labeled “A Joe Pike Novel,” and readers have to wonder if there will be more. Readers who pick it up and finish it — probably in a single sitting, or two at most — will hope that it’s just the beginning of a new series, even though Elvis Cole figures in the book as well.
Pike’s history interweaves with an assignment he takes because of a promise he made to a man named Jon Stone, an associate from Pike’s mercenary days. Stone calls Pike in, asking him to bodyguard a young woman named Larkin Connor Barkley, who was unlucky enough to have a traffic accident that involved a man she identifies as a top cocaine baron. The FBI wants her to testify against the man, but to do that, she has to stay alive.
Larkin’s father calls in Bud Flynn, the man who trained Pike while he was with the LAPD. The man who became, for a time, the father Pike never had. Flynn wants Pike to protect the girl after an attempt is made on her life.
Pike, though, has his own way of dealing with the would-be killers. After two more attempts are made on her life while she’s in his care, Pike knows that someone is leaking information on Larkin’s whereabouts. Unable to remain hidden forever, with no one outside of Elvis Cole to rely on, Pike resolves to handle the situation in a way that’s uniquely his own: he’s going to track down the killers and kill them all.
He just has to keep himself and the girl alive long enough to do it. And in the process, his own problems and secrets spill out over the ones Larkin is keeping hidden.
Crais is truly a phenomenal writer. His characters, even a superman like Joe Pike, are real and flawed in truly human ways. The prose in this novel crackles with energy, and the plot twists hammer the reader again and again as the author reveals the surprises he has in store. The dialogue is dead-on, funny and insightful, and so real it feels like you’re sitting in the room as the people have their conversations.
The Watchman is a great book. I finished it in two sittings and would have finished it in one, but my stamina just didn’t hold out. The pages turn with seductive ease, and I found myself fully engaged with the story at all times. Even knowing that Pike would doubtless survive, and probably Larkin as well — I hoped — Crais gave me plenty of other characters to worry about.
Even if you’ve never read an Elvis Cole book before, you can pick up The Watchman and rest assured that you’ll get the whole story. If you’ve read all the Elvis Cole books before, this is one you’ve been waiting on for years.