Festival of Books: Robert Crais on his crime-fighting duo
It's no secret that Robert Crais has admired Raymond Chandler ever since picking up a copy of "The Little Sister" as a young teen. He shared that moment of discovery with Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan during a Sunday afternoon session at the L.A. Times Festival of Books.
"Chandler was my gateway drug," he told a large crowd in USC's Bing Theater. "I was digging for stuff in a used bookstore, and I came upon 'Little Sister.' I fell in love with Chandler that night. I fell right down the rabbit hole of crime fiction."
Like Chandler, Crais has been after something more than chunking away money in an annuity account with a string of successful novels (18 to date) featuring Elvis Cole and Joe Pike. He also chronicles the neighborhoods and communities of L.A., and this adds a solid spine to all of his Cole/Pike stories, which started with "The Monkey's Raincoat" in 1987.
"I'm a big believer in the buddy system," he told the audience about his decision to write a series pairing private eye Cole with his lethal, mysterious partner Pike. "I never saw Elvis as just the guy who's the lone wolf. I wanted to give him someone to be his friend and associate. There's a natural dynamic in a crime duo that's always appealed to me."
Crais' latest novel, "Taken," describes the anguish of Nita Morales, whose adult daughter is missing. Nita receives a call for ransom money but thinks it's only a shameful game her daughter is playing to wring cash out of her. When Cole and Pike are hired to find out where she is, they discover a darker world that is part of the one Crais maps out in his books -- the world of bandits who sell anything, including undocumented people, for any price.
"Before the research for 'Taken,' I had a certain simple mindset of what illegal immigration really was," he explained. "I thought like many people that it just referred to guys hiding in the back of a pickup truck or sneaking across the U.S. border at night. My research showed that it's really much more than that. These people come from all over the world, entering from Vancouver as well as from the south. That was an eye opener for me."
Turan and Crais talked about much more than just "Taken." Their conversation ranged over Crais' Louisiana upbringing and being the first in his family to want to be a writer ("My family was all police and hard hats at the refineries; they didn't know what to think about me. So I became a closet writer"), his early success as a TV writer (his 10 years in Hollywood started out with fun and excitement, but the collective process and the accompanying politics wore him out) and his early efforts as a novelist.
"I tried to reject everything I knew as a TV writer when I decided to be a novelist, and the books didn't work," he said. "Finally I realized I should go back to all the techniques I'd learned." The result was "The Monkey's Raincoat."
Turan's conversation with Crais moved lightly, easily, with plenty of laughs from the audience (clearly Elvis Cole shares a wise-cracking sense of humor with his creator). One of the most interesting moments came near the end, when Crais was asked about Cole and Pike's future in Hollywood. Such a successful duo should move to the big screen. It's inevitable, right?
Crais said it would never happen.
"My feelings are uncomfortably complicated," he said. "I just can't imagine sitting there in a room with a group of people who think they can improve on Elvis and Joe. I can't see myself sitting there, taking notes. I was a part of that world. I know what goes on, and I don't think it would be fun for me."
But more than that, he worries how it would affect readers' relationships with the duo.
"I love the fact that you collaborate with your readers when you write a book. Books are theaters of the mind, and every reader's vision of Elvis or Joe is slightly different. I love that. If a movie was made, even a good one, it would change that. I'd feel like I lost something with my readers, and I really don't want to do that."
-- Nick Owchar
Photo: Robert Crais at the Festival of Books on Sunday. Credit: Ringo H.W. Chiu / For The Times