Monday, 17 January 2011


It was almost 25 years ago that Robert Crais' Elvis Cole made his debut, which means we (but not Crais) are getting older. So is Cole. He came along in the second-wave of neo-Chandler private eyes, full of irreverence and wise-cracking, like Fletch or Moses Wine. But as the Cole series progressed the books grew deeper and more layered, and after three exceptional Cole novels (LA Requiem, The Last Detective, and Forgotten Man) whose titles reflect their growing darkness, Crais changed gears, with his first novel making Cole's partner Joe Pike the main character. The first Pike novel, The Watchman, set the tone: its title reflecting Pike's character, but the book itself driven primarily by plot, a play by play of the relentless Pike on his quest, with most of the characterisation provided by the cast who play off Pike's stoic silences.

The Sentry is the third Pike novel (just published in the US, out in the UK in March), and its title reflects the first, defining Pike and his character. The story is simple: Pike interrupts what looks like a gang-banger shakedown at Wilson's Po' Boys, a touch of pre-Katrina New Orleans transplanted to a Venice cafe, and falls for something in the manner of Dru Rayne, the niece of the strangely uappreciative Wilson, who runs the cafe and whom Pike has saved from a more severe beating. Of course, it turns out there is more going on that just a small-time protection racket, and soon Dru has disappeared and Pike, who said he would protect her and her uncle, is on a mission to rescue her.

The beauty of the Pike books is that Crais can indulge in thriller writing, the kind of thing he did to an extent in television, and in Pike he has the perfect kind of hero to do that. Pike may be somewhat utilitarian as a character, but because he remains so constant, so true to that character, and because he remains almost unaffected by the way 'normal' characters interact, he provides a certain amount of freedom. Where Elvis Cole becomes the centre of every scene he was in, and we understand characters through his own, limited in some ways, perspective, with Pike the other characters become the focus, and we understand them as Pike does, and perhaps better.

That's certainly the case here, as a femme fatale shows Pike's own vulnerability, the way he is trapped within his own code of behaviour, which is almost existential apart from when it is cracked open by a woman. In that sense, Crais' take on a classic film noir situation is made even more stark by Cole's presence, as alter-ego to Pike.You would actually like to see more interaction between Pike and Dru, because she's a strong character but primarily off-stage; in fact, her most chilling scene is probably whe Pike observes her from afar, and ought to realise what the score is at that point, since we do, but may be reluctant to believe the evidence of his eyes.

It's also interesting because the story actually starts, as Wilson and Dru do, in New Orleans, and the most frightening of the book's many villains, Daniel, a self-described werewolf, is drawn with strong overtones of horror, sort of John Connolly on the bayou. But there is a twist to the werewolf's behaviour, one whose success depends on how much you sense it coming; which is why I won't mention what it is. If it works for you, it provides the book with an odd moment of sympathetic frisson. But for a full-bore, fast-paced thriller, which it most certainly is, The Sentry is a suprisingly soft-centered and sensitive story. Crais has come a long way since The Monkey's Raincoat, never boring and often surprising. Twenty-five years? Really?

The Sentry by Robert Crais

Orion Books, £12.99 ISBN 9781409116004

NOTE: This review will also appear at

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