The Last Detective
by Robert Crais
Published by Doubleday
273 pages, 2003
All Shook Up
Reviewed by Anthony Rainone
One of the marvelous things about Robert Crais is his ability to sustain a high level of tension without sacrificing plausibility and reaching for the grandiose. He peppers his frenetic storytelling pace with tendon-popping, heart-in-your-throat moments that suddenly slam the brakes on his action sequences and make you realize that you've been holding your breath the whole time. Whether it's the tragic death of homicide cop Samantha Dolan at the booby-trapped home of a serial killer in L.A. Requiem (1999), or the pyrotechnic shoot-out at Domingo Garcia Duran's house in the finale to The Monkey's Raincoat (1987), or police chief Jeff Talley being outmaneuvered and facing certain death in Hostage (2001), Crais engages his readers on emotional, intellectual and physical planes -- if fluctuating adrenaline levels count for anything.
It's no surprise, then, that The Last Detective delivers, big-time. These are dark days for series private eye Elvis Cole, as we learn in this new novel, and the maelstrom that overtakes his protagonist's life allows Crais to peel back the layers from his wisecracking P.I., revealing a past and a troubled family history that readers have wanted to know about for some time. They are blistered layers, though, a heritage that Elvis has been loath to examine.
Elvis is still romantically linked to Lucille Chenier, the civil-law attorney from Louisiana who was introduced in Voodoo River (1995). Lucy is now living in Los Angeles with her 10-year-old son, Ben, and working as a TV legal commentator. When she heads south on assignment to San Diego, at the start of The Last Detective, Elvis agrees to keep an eye on Ben. But the boy is soon kidnapped from the slope behind Elvis' house. Child abduction, children in danger and adults dealing with childhood traumas are "in" topics for Crais, and they're the focus in most of his books. The kidnapper in this one tells Elvis that he's taken Ben as "payback" for "what you did" -- an allusion to Cole's long-ago military tour in Vietnam, when he was an 18-year-old member of the "Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol, designation number 5-2." The abductor's threat cracks open the memories of that terrible time, memories that Elvis has not confronted for many years. "I was caught in a yellowed photo album from my own past," the detective muses, "flipping through bright green pictures of cocky young studs, of another me, a much different me, of young men with painted faces, hollow eyes, and the damp sour smell of fear."
Right away, Elvis asks for help from his friend Lou Poitras, an LAPD homicide lieutenant assigned to the Hollywood Station. In turn, Poitras calls in two detectives from the Juvenile Section, Dave Gittamon and Carol Starkey, the latter of whom was the protagonist in a previous best-selling Crais novel, Demolition Angel (2000). Starkey has her own edgy past, apparent in her sullen behavior and chain-smoking habit, but her brusqueness with Elvis is soon understood as romantic interest. In a sort of fiction-becomes-reality turn, Cole remembers reading about Starkey in the L.A. Times -- first, as the bomb squad cop who died when a device she was disarming went off, only to subsequently be revived; then, as the detective who caught serial cop killer "Mr. Red" (in Demolition Angel). Starkey is now working the Juvenile Section, motivated by the fact that she "can't have kids." When Starkey and Elvis explore the slope behind his house a day after Ben's snatching, they discover that the boy's footprints stop abruptly. Upon closer inspection, Elvis (using his Army Ranger skills) finds a single heel print, left in the soil by the kidnapper. He begins to realize that whoever took Ben has a military background similar to his own, and that makes the man highly dangerous. As Cole tells Lucy and the detectives:
"You don't learn how to move the way this man moved by hunting deer on the weekends, or going through ROTC. He's spent time in places where he was surrounded by people who would kill him if they found him, so he knows how to move without leaving a trail, and he knows how to hunt people because Ben never saw him coming. That's why we didn't find signs of a struggle."
However, the investigation quickly turns circus-like. Lucy's ex-husband, Richard Chenier, a wealthy natural-gas industry exec with hefty political clout, flies out to Southern California from Louisiana to find his son, bringing along his own security team: a couple of menacing former New Orleans cops. Richard Chenier is your typical egocentric CEO, a guy who expects to get what he wants, when he wants it. Detective Gittamon is all too willing to let the politics of this situation take precedence over police protocol, and he gives Richard Chenier free reign. But beyond getting his son back, Chenier also wants to put the final stake in his ex-wife's already strained relationship with Elvis Cole. As The Last Detective progresses, Chenier's jealousy proves to be stronger and more dangerous than anyone had imagined.
With the chances of bringing Ben home alive growing thin, a fearful Elvis summons his lethal sidekick, Joe Pike. But Pike has issues of his own with which to reckon. As this novel opens, we find him up north in Alaska, recovering from the events chronicled in L.A. Requiem. Shot twice in that previous book, the stoic Pike "had almost died, but didn't." After hearing about a rabid bear that had been killing and eating humans in the Last Frontier, Pike figured that hunting the creature down was just what he needed to get his mojo back. Yet this modern-day Natty Bumpo, a skilled woodsman and instinctual reader of men, with super-fast reactions, is now less than he had been, more human. He lost some of his essence in Requiem. There's a significant scene well into The Last Detective, in which Elvis confronts Richard Chenier and his security team. Pike intercedes and dodges a thrown punch -- almost. As Elvis explains:
When I turned to Joe, I saw a dark glimmer at the edge of his lip.
Realizing that whoever took young Ben must have been watching Elvis' house, the P.I. and Pike set out to put a name to that shadowy figure. Gittamon tries to stand in their way by isolating Elvis, keeping him away from the investigation, but Carol Starkey bends the rules and teams up with the sleuthing partners. She scores when she finds the only piece of evidence with the kidnapper's fingerprint on it. There's a race-against-the-clock atmosphere to this novel's middle chapters, with Elvis, Pike and Starkey charging up hills and through wooded areas around Elvis' home, chasing clues and witnesses. Criminalist John Chen (last seen in Demolition Angel) makes an appearance in these pages, too, applying his forensic skills to the kidnapping case. Elvis and Starkey work well together, even if she does not provide the kick-ass attitude or muscle that Pike can. Nonetheless, the juvenile-abduction cop and the iconoclastic gumshoe share an appreciation of children and a strong need for family ties ("You and Ben are my family," Elvis tells Lucy at one point). With the strain of Elvis Cole's profession and its inherent dangers proving too much for the lovely Lucy, one wonders if Starkey will find a more significant position in Elvis' life somewhere down the line.
Pressures on the relationship between Elvis and Lucy are exacerbated by the kidnapper's contention, made during a telephone call to the police, that Ben's seizure is Elvis' fault. Heaping insult on that injury is a file folder of "dirt" on Cole, dug up by Richard Chenier's head security man. The door to Elvis' past starts to open wider as the detective struggles to make Lucy understand the charges of assault, battery and grand theft auto that were lodged against him as a teenager. "I wasn't keeping secrets," he insists. "Some things are better left behind, that's all, you move past and go on. That's what I've tried to do, and not just about the war."
Still recovering from threats made to her son's life in Requiem, Lucy now sees that her lover may have one too many mysteries in his past. As she says to Elvis:
"I've never seen a childhood picture of you. You never mention your family, or where you're from, or any of that except for the jokes you'll make. You know, I tease you about Joe, how he never talks, Mr. Stoneface, but you don't say any more than him, not about the things that matter, and I find that so strange."
It's at this point that The Last Detective introduces us into Cole's carefully hidden history, and the root of Lucy's complaint about Elvis' silence is shown to stem from her boyfriend's emotionally abusive childhood. As Crais' explains, Elvis' mother was "a crazy head case," an alcoholic who would disappear for days, sometimes weeks at a time, leaving her son in the care of either his aunt or his grandfather. Upon her return, she'd subject Elvis to some pretty odd behavior. One day, for instance, when Elvis was 6 years old, she decided to change his name. Although he was born Phillip James Cole, his mother announced that "I'm going to call you Elvis from now on and so is everyone else." (During a recent U.S. book tour, author Crais suggested that the name Elvis was the "most important gift" his protagonist had received from his mother. "Because," he observed, "if you can live with that name, you're bound to be strong.")
Fear of abandonment made the young Elvis "promise God that he would be a better boy if only [his mother returned home]." Unable to please this mentally unstable parent, and not knowing his father's identity, the insecure and love-starved Elvis was finally turned over to child welfare services. Those experiences sowed in him a hunger for family, and in his teen years, Elvis sought the clannish cohesion and structure of the military. However, that security fell away one horrifying day, when Elvis' Ranger patrol was dropped behind enemy lines -- and almost annihilated by the North Vietnamese Army. The old adage is that war is hell, and Crais has brought hell vividly to life in these passages, creating a literary equal (though in a different conflict) to the opening moments of Saving Private Ryan.
Competing with the continuing harried search for Ben Chenier, and vignettes drawn from both Elvis' childhood and his Vietnam patrol days, are scenes that depict Ben's attempts to escape his confinement. We learn a good deal about his captors. Mike Fallon, Ibo Mazzi and Eric Schilling are all military-trained killing machines, mercenaries who have slaughtered men, women and children all over the world. Their interest in Ben is strictly monetary, and ringleader Fallon intends to double-cross the man who hired them. In one particularly gruesome moment for Ben, he is made to witness Fallon executing a man as part of this double-cross:
Mike moved so quickly that Ben didn't understand what was happening even as Mike put a gun to the big man's head and fired one time. Ben jumped at the unexpected explosion. The big man crumpled sideways into the car, then tumbled off. Mike held the phone near the gun and shot him a second time. Ben moaned from a terrible pressure in his chest, and Eric held him close.
Using the fingerprint Carol Starkey had found, as well as other information -- some of it gathered illegally -- Elvis and Pike ultimately find the trail of the kidnappers. While Fallon and his cohorts seem to have the upper hand ("Pike thought, they're beating us. These people are so damned good that they're beating us."), The Last Detective ends with adrenaline-soaked feats of valor on the part of Elvis and Pike. There are fatalities, but the costs in emotional terms weigh at least as heavily. The dynamics of the Chenier family will be altered forever, and the reader just can't be sure where Elvis Cole's life will stand by the time Robert Crais sees his next series installment published. (The author says that he's considering writing a trilogy of linked Elvis books next, but is also mulling over the prospect of composing another standalone.)
Publication of The Last Detective was delayed, and given all that happens in these lean 273 pages, the task of completing a coherent, smooth-reading tale must have been enormous. Yet Crais largely succeeds in his ambitions for this ninth Elvis Cole novel. The self-styled "World's Greatest Detective," once committed to never growing up, is again in a state of evolutionary flux, with his good buddy Pike standing by his side. They deserve time to heal between now and their next investigative case. I can't help but wonder what the newly self-aware Elvis Cole -- in touch with his past -- will be like the next time around. | March 2003
Anthony Rainone is a contributing editor of January Magazine.