The Two Minute Rule
by Robert Crais
Published by Simon & Schuster
336 pages, 2006
The One Night Read
Reviewed by Anthony Rainone
If there's any single thing readers take away from Robert Crais' new novel, The Two Minute Rule, it's that family is paramount. In fact, that same theme plays through all of Crais' 13 books. Whether it's Los Angeles private eye Elvis Cole searching for the kidnappers of young Ben Chenier in The Last Detective, or police chief Jeff Talley trying to free Jennifer and Thomas Smith from the clutches of psychopaths in the novel Hostage, there is a clear message being sent by the author to his villains: Don't mess with family, or you'll pay dire consequences. It's not like crime-fictionists haven't mined this terrain before, with perhaps the works of Ross Macdonald providing the best example. However, no one writes this type of story with more heart than Crais. If the author keeps producing standalones like this, I might not miss Elvis Cole so much.
The novel centers around Max Holman, a man who's spent "ten years, three months, and four days" in federal prison for bank robbery. Holman is now in a different place mentally -- he's subdued and exhibiting more impulse control. Time has also taken a physical toll: he's older, 46.
In the day, Holman had lived large. He stole cars, hijacked trucks, and robbed banks. Fat with fast cash, he hoovered up crystal meth for breakfast and Maker's Mark for lunch, so jittery from dope and hung over from booze he rarely bothered to eat. He had gained weight in prison.
Holman is getting ready to move to the Pacific Gardens Motel Apartments in Culver City, just west of L.A., for supervised release ("Being released from federal custody happened in stages"), when he learns that his 23-year-old son, Richard, an LAPD officer, was killed along with three other cops in an early morning ambush. The officers had been parked in the L.A. River channel taking a break. Holman had been hoping to end the decade of separation from his only son with a heartfelt reconciliation, and the news of Richie's death stuns him ("The world left Holman behind like one car pulling away from another on a flat desert highway ..."). But Holman operates on an instinctual level that's laden with an ex-con's mistrust of people and a quick temper ("Clark was pissing him off. It was guys like Clark who had been busting his balls for most of his life"), and he doesn't weep at his son's demise; rather, he approaches it practically. "Holman didn't cry. He wanted to know who did it," Crais writes.
As Crais explains it, getting out of prison is similar to waking from a coma -- you have to relearn how to do things in order to function in society once more ("He felt like a mummy rising from the dead," Crais says of his protagonist). So, at the same time as Holman seeks hard answers to Richie's slaying, he struggles to adjust to life on the outside. He forgets little things, like locking his motel room door when he leaves, which the motel caretaker, Perry Wilkes -- who likes to scam his recently released inmate clients -- has to remind him to do ("You have to lock the deadbolt when you leave ... This isn't the [Community Correctional Center]. You don't lock your room, someone might steal your stuff."). He also has to remind himself to try to relate to people politely ("Holman thanked him for his time. Getting along"), and the reader feels for Holman's conscientious efforts to fit back into society. He finds it even more challenging to figure out precisely what happened to his son. When Holman analyzes what the police tell him about Richie's untimely death -- that he and the other officers were surprised by their killer -- only to then examine the actual crime scene himself -- a place where you could hear a murderer coming from a mile away -- it's obvious that things don't add up. Richie's commanding officer tells Holman that his son was a "a fine young man"; but John Random, the detective who's running the investigation from LAPD headquarters at Parker Center, informs Holman that all four of the cops were dirty ("They were problem officers with shit records and a crappy attitude"). For Holman, two things become obvious: the police are covering something up, and Richie's reputation is at stake. The ex-con wants to know if his son was a dirty cop, but he's afraid of the answer.
The murder of Richie and those other three officers -- Mike Fowler, Patrick Mellon and Charles Wallace Ash -- is attributed to a gangbanger by the name of Warren Alberto Juarez. Detective Random is never able to explain to Holman's satisfaction how Juarez could sneak up on the armed quartet and kill them all, without the officers firing even a single shot in self-defense. The scant motive is that one of the cops, Fowler, had locked up Juarez's brother, only to have that young man be killed in jail. In retribution, it's said, Juarez assassinated the four officers. Not very convincing, even to a guy like Holman, who hasn't had to think much for himself in 10 years. The ex-con realizes that he's confronted with a cover-up perpetrated by Random and the LAPD. Since there is only so much a newly released jailbird can do on his own, he turns to others for help.
Criminals did not have friends. They had associates, suppliers, fences, whores, sugar daddies, enablers, dealers, collaborators, co-conspirators, victims and bosses, any of whom they might rat out and none of whom could be trusted. Most everyone Holman met on the yard during his ten years at Lompoc had not been arrested and convicted because Dick Tracy or Sherlock Holmes made their case; they had been fingered by someone they knew and trusted. Police work only went so far; Holman wanted to find someone who would rat out Warren Juarez.
In Holman's case, the person he turns to first is Gary "L'Chee" Moreno, a man he has known since childhood and who was his partner in crime. L'Chee is running a body shop in East L.A. now and feels indebted to Holman for not ratting him out as the getaway driver in his last bank job -- the one that landed Holman in federal stir. L'Chee gives his former partner a car to use and a fake driver's license; more importantly, though, he tells Holman where to find Juarez's young wife. When that lead fails to produce the location of Warren Juarez himself (he's subsequently discovered dead), Holman tries another tack. Visiting with his son's wife, Liz, he learns that Richie was investigating a bank robbery, committed a few months earlier by "takeover lunatics named Marchenko and Parsons." After threats from Random to back off the case, and after the police remove all of Richie's case files on Marchenko and Parsons, Holman turns to another unlikely source for help: Katherine Pollard, the FBI special agent in the Bank Squad, who had arrested him 10 years before.
Crais has long been regarded as a writer of exceptional women characters (remember Carol Starkey in Demolition Angel?), and Pollard is the latest feminine creation to benefit from his attentions. While Holman is on a mission to redeem his son's reputation and bring the boy's murderer to justice, Pollard faces her own inner struggles. After marrying and becoming pregnant eight years earlier, she had retired from the FBI. When her marriage went south and her husband suddenly died, she felt the need to be more than a mother again, to feel the rush that life had once offered her.
Pollard had never been good in the morning. Every morning for as long as she could remember -- months, maybe years -- she woke feeling depleted, and dreading the pain of beginning her day. She drank two cups of black coffee just to give herself a pulse.
When she receives Holman's letter requesting her assistance, she is intrigued. Pollard has a law officer's instinctual reluctance to help a former convict; but when her own peripheral investigation of the case turns up more questions than answers ("That was the problem -- there was no other way to see it, but the police claimed they saw it another way"), she jumps in feet first. The reader senses Pollard's frustration at her civilian impotence ("She felt like nothing"), and her desire to experience the power and adrenaline rush that being a "feeb" once offered her ("She had never hesitated to knock on any door or ask any question and she had almost always gotten the answers.").
Author Crais has a history of switching points of view throughout his novels, and he does so again in Two Minute Rule. Yet the give and take between Holman and Pollard is smooth and entrancing. Katherine Pollard is a likable figure, and her isolation in suburbia was as stultifying as Holman's in Lompoc. She not only comes vividly to life in these pages, she becomes Holman's only salvation -- and he becomes hers ("She felt as if she was in the game again. She was back in the hunt."). Interestingly, their investigations lead in the direction of dirty dealings by Holman's son and the other officers, just as Detective Random had suggested; it may be that the four LAPD officers were trying to get their hands on millions of dollars in stolen bank money that was never recovered from the Marchenko-Parsons heists. Although this news is potentially devastating, Holman presses on, his efforts -- and Pollard's -- combining to weed out the astonishing truth.
There are twists galore in The Two Minute Rule, and a reader's early assumptions are more than likely to be proven wrong. The novel opens and closes with fast-paced pyrotechnic action that only Crais can pull off, but there are so many emotionally explosive moments throughout, that the reader is constantly in a state of anticipation and anxiety. Crais takes a redeemed convict, Holman, and fashions him into one of the most sympathetic characters I've seen in years. This book takes its title from a bank robber's creed that you have two minutes in a bank, either to get the cash or get out. Then the police arrive and all hell breaks loose. A variation of that same tenet could apply to The Two Minute Rule. You have the option of not picking this book up and getting to bed at a decent hour, or you won't put it down until dawn breaks. Not to worry, though, for the novel is a fast page-turner -- perhaps Robert Crais' finest effort yet. | March 2006
Anthony Rainone is a contributing editor of January Magazine.