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Q&A with 'The First Rule' author Robert Crais

Oline H. Cogdill
Sun Sentinel (MCT)

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Robert Crais doesn't follow fads. If he did, his debut novel, "The Monkey's Raincoat," might never have been published in 1987. At the time, women authors were making great inroads into the genre with novels about hard-charging female private detectives. Mysteries about male private eyes weren't in vogue.

But Crais' Elvis Cole wasn't the typical private detective. Instead of a trench coat and cigarettes, Elvis preferred Hawaiian shirts and a Pinocchio clock. Elvis' partner, Joe Pike, spent as much time leaning against a wall, observing through his wrap-around sunglasses as he did fighting the criminals. "The Monkey's Raincoat" established Crais and set the foundation for his series — weaving broad, wise-cracking humor, a noir atmosphere and an evocative view of L.A. into a serious tightly woven plot. The novel won the 1987 Anthony and Macavity Awards, was nominated for the Edgar Award and was selected as one of the 100 Favorite Mysteries of the Century by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association.

Since then, Crais has published 13 novels about Elvis and Joe, three stand-alone novels and taken home just about every award in the mystery genre. Elvis remains the series' perennial hero, but Crais' newest novel "The First Rule" is his second to focus on Joe Pike.

Crais got his start writing television scripts, becoming at age 23 the youngest story editor at Universal, working on such hit shows as "Baretta," "Hill Street Blues" and "Quincy."

We caught up with Crais just before "The First Rule's" book tour.

Q: In "The Monkey's Raincoat," you originally had planned to kill Joe Pike at the end. What stopped you?

A: He was so much fun to write, I couldn't bring myself to kill him. I wanted to know more about him. I still do.

Q: "The First Rule" is your second novel focusing on Joe Pike, following "The Watchman" (2007). What is it about Joe that forced him to have his own novels?

A: Joe Pike isn't like any other character I know in modern crime fiction — he's mysterious, enigmatic, and maybe even unknowable. This nature makes him enormously appealing ... and powerful. It's as if I have to write about him to uncover his secrets. It's also a helluva lot of fun.

Q: As a reader, I find an emotional connection with your characters. What is it about your characters that resonate with readers?

A: Thank you for that; you couldn't have paid me a better compliment. I write characters and stories that move me, and I write from the heart. Joe Pike might be a strange and frighteningly deadly ex-mercenary, but he is also a human being, dealing with all the heartaches and frailties that anyone deals with. For him, maybe it's even more difficult to deal with these things, and you and I are touched by his struggle.

Q: I've always thought that many of your plots revolve back to families. What is it about the family dynamic that lend it to so many plots?

A: Everything we are is anchored in our childhoods. The drama comes in how we deal with it. Are we slaves to our past, or can we rise above it? This is the stuff of great stories.

Q: Who is wittier — you or Elvis?

A: Elvis. He says funny things without having to think about it. Me, I have to think up something cute, and thinking takes time. Of course, he has the advantage of being fictional.

Q: Astute readers know that Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch character makes an unbilled cameo in your novel "The Last Detective." Connelly returned the favor in "Lost Light" when Harry spots his neighbor Elvis and gives him the "smooth sailing, brother" salute. Will Harry ever make another cameo in your novels?

A: I doubt it, but who knows? Mike and I tipped our hats to each other when we had the characters show up in each other's books. We didn't do it for fans, or for anyone else; we did it for each other, like fighter pilots saluting each other in the air, showing respect. Having played the card, there doesn't seem to be any reason to do it again.

Q: What's next? Another Pike or another Elvis?

A: Another Pike. I'm on a roll.

Q: Is there anything you want to write about but haven't?

A: It's all a function of time. Give me enough time, I'll get it all written.

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