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Interview With Robert Crais, Author of The Watchman

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Robert Crais is one of the best crime writers around and his new book, The Watchman, is further evidence of that fact. The book comes out on March 1. I have been reading Crais for several years and telling others to check him out too.

He is part of a younger generation of crime writers – that also includes Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, and Michael Connelly – who are more hip and sound less phony when talking about music and cultural issues than some of the veterans. In recent months I have been lucky enough to interview Connelly and Pelecanos via email and now I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing Crais, albeit for a short time.

I may have annoyed him, but hopefully not, by asking about critics of one element of his books – the characters. In doing research for this interview I read a bunch of reviews, the most intriguing of which was at a site called The Brothers Judd. The site made two points, one of which I agree with and one with which I disagree. Crais and I disagree with them about the quality and importance of the characters.

The point I agree with is that the dialogue of Crais and some other good, young writers – though not so much Pelecanos and Connelly – reminds one of the fun banter of Robert Parker’s novels. This means that we seem to have gone from a writer like Robert Parker, who was clearly influenced by Raymond Chandler, even having been authorized to complete one of his unfinished manuscripts, to writers who seem to have more in common with Parker than Chandler. Now whether that is good or bad depends on how you think Parker compares to Chandler.

I like Parker, and praised Small Vices and Blue Screen, but I think he’s gotten more predictable in recent years. Fortunately, the same can’t be said for Crais. His plots are interesting and his characters fascinating. Just as I like to pretend I’m a young pacifist version of  Robert Parker’s protagonist, Spenser – okay, maybe not so much – I also like to think I’m as sharp and witty as Robert Crais’ protagonist, Elvis Cole.

This book is focused on Cole’s partner, Joe Pike, who is more of the strong, silent type. But I’ll let Crais explain why he did that.

Why a novel about Joe Pike? Will there be others?

I’m as intrigued about Pike as my readers.  Like them, I’ve wanted to know more about him, so I set about planning this book when I wrote The Last Detective. I needed the right kind of story — a story that would set Joe apart from Elvis Cole — so I set the stage by having Pike make a promise to a man named Jon Stone in The Last Detective, a promise that Elvis doesn’t know about.  That promise set the stage perfectly for The Watchman.

Will there be other Pike books?

I hope so, but I’ll need the right story.  I don’t write these things just to write them.  If I find a story that absolutely MUST be Pike’s story, then I’ll write it.

What do you think of the argument – such as it is expressed at this site – that some characters (Pike in your books, Hawk in Robert Parker books) are for atmosphere and should not become the center of attention in novels?

I don’t worry about what anyone thinks about this stuff. I don’t think of my characters — any of my characters — as ‘atmosphere.’  That reduces them to, what, pepper and paprika?  I would never be so disrespectful to my readers. I could write killer novels based around any of the supporting players from the Elvis Cole novels — John Chen, for instance. Lou Poitras. Hell, Carol Starkey began in her own novel, Demolition Angel. I might even write about her again.

How did writing television show scripts help or hinder your later work as a crime novelist?

I was a baby writer on terrific, high quality shows — Hill Street Blues, Cagney & Lacey, Miami Vice. The people I worked with — Ed Waters, Steven Bochco, April Smith, Tony Yerkovich, man, the list goes on — these people had mad skills. They were writing the best dialog, the tightest plots, the deepest characters on television. Everything I learned in television has helped my work, and, I think, my success.

Is it true you have taken steps to prevent Elvis Cole or Joe Pike from being portrayed in movies? How? Why?

No fancy steps here — studios, producers, actors, whoever, they make offers to buy Elvis and Joe, I say, no thanks.  It would take me six pages to write out why, so here’s the short version:  I want to save the characters for me and my readers.

If you could do a collaboration with one other crime writer who would it be and why that one author?

I don’t collaborate. Why you think I got out of television!?

What’s next?

Elvis Cole. Next year’s book will feature Elvis Cole. It’s a killer story. 

Related: Two fellow Blogcritics writers, Mel Odom, and Bill Bennett (not the Republican blowhard, for the record) have written positive reviews of this book.

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About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.
  • http://philobiblon.co.uk Natalie Bennett

    This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net, which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States. Nice work!

  • Bill Bennett

    Thanks for the identification of not being THE blowhard, though some people would say that I am one!

  • Bill Bennett

    Oh, sorry this was anawsome review!

  • Scott Butki

    Thanks, Bill.

  • Scott Butki

    Three good Robert Crais links:
    A review in today’s Washington Post on Crais’ new book

    An article in the L.A. Times about him

    and Robert Crais on Hammett, definitely one of the greats of the genre

  • Scott Butki

    Entertainment Weekly has a good, concise review of this book.

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