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An interesting, but somewhat alarming, thing happened a few years ago; private eye writers started imitating Robert B. Parker more than Raymond Chandler.  The irony, of course, is that Parker began his Spenser series as an homage to the works of Hammett, Chandler and MacDonald--the three indisputable masters of American noir detective fiction.  If memory serves, he had even written his Masters thesis on those authors.  His debt to these giants is especially evident in the early entries in the series, but gradually he added his own innovations, virtually every one of which has been detrimental to his own books, and to the extent that they have been aped by others, to the genre as a whole.

The essence of the early hard-boiled mysteries was the detective as lone knight errant, unbeholden to anyone, righting wrongs in an unremittingly hostile world, working out of dingy offices, dining on blue plate specials, drinking too much whiskey and getting far too emotionally involved in each case.  They worked in an ambiguous nether region, acquainted, perhaps even grudgingly admired, by mobsters, cops and District Attorneys, none of whom felt any compunction about putting the screws to our hero when needed.  Most of the dramatic tension in these essentially formulaic stories arose from the emotional vulnerability of the p.i. in relation to his needy clients and his physical vulnerability in relation to both the criminals and the formal legal world.  In order to navigate these troubled waters and keep their souls intact, these men adhered to a strict moral code, one that allowed them to cut some corners as regards the criminal system, but bound them to an ethical code that they could not breach.  The most famous illustration of this is when Sam Spade turns in Brigitte O'Shaughnessy at the end of The Maltese Falcon--love is fine and dandy, but you can't play the sucker for anybody and you have to avenge your dead partner, even if you didn't like him all that much.

The new elements that Parker introduced in the Spenser books drained away much of this tension.  First, there is the truly awful character of Susan Silverman.  Bad enough that the presence of a steady squeeze serves to distance Spenser from his own clients, by also making her a psychiatrist, Parker opens the way for all kinds of stomach churning moments of verbal introspection on the part of his hero.  Listening to Spenser search his soul and dissect his relationships with other men, you can practically hear Dashiell Hammett spinning in his grave.

Parker's next great blasphemy was the introduction of Hawk.  Now I like the character well enough.  I even think he would make for an entertaining series of his own.  But in the context of this series he provides for the possibility, frequently utilized, of a moral cop-out.  Spenser can adhere to his own moral code secure in the knowledge that Hawk is in the background doing the dirty work.  Additionally, since all of the bad guys know that they'll have to deal with an angry Hawk if they take out Spenser, he has provided a certain invulnerability to the hero.  Add to that the way in which policemen like Quirk and Belson and later on even District Attorneys and Feds and then gangsters all became Spenser partisans and there is virtually no tension left in the series. By the time all of these changes have taken full effect, you are left with the soft boiled private eye--emotionally distant from his clients, unafraid of the bad guys or law enforcement--all that's left is the admittedly snappy dialogue and an inertia that keeps us reading about characters who we used to like.  The books have become like the last few seasons of MASH, Cheers and Magnum, P.I.; we all know that they're no longer any good, but we've formed the habit and are too lazy to give it up.

All of which is by way of introduction to the best of the Parker imitators, Robert Crais.  This series, featuring the immensely likable Elvis Cole, is grounded in the classic p.i. novels, but unfortunately borrows one of the worst elements of the Parker novels.  Just as Spenser has Hawk, Elvis has an invulnerable and ruthless sidekick in Joe Pike.  At one point in this book--the first in the series and nominated for both an Edgar and a Shamus as best first novel--when the bad guys start up surveillance on Cole and his client, Pike disappears into the night and kills the guys watching the house in cold blood.  Regardless of whether they deserve it or it makes sense, the fact that he can rely on Pike to do these kinds of things, which his own moral code would forbid him from doing, cheapens that code and makes the ethical distinctions that he draws pretty meaningless.

I recently read a detective novel by Gary Phillips (see Orrin's review) and in one of his interviews he revealed that he had taken a course on writing detective fiction which was taught by Robert Crais. Their textbook?  A Spenser novel.

Like I said, I think Crais is the best of the Parker disciples.  I like this series very much.  But I much prefer the true inheritors of the original greats, like Loren D. Estleman and Jonathan Valin (read Orrin's review of Day of Wrath).  These guys have managed to write modern day mysteries while remaining true to the formula that made the genre so compelling in the first place.

So we'll give The Monkey's Raincoat a solid recommendation, but I do have some reservations.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (B+)

  

Websites:

See also:

Robert Crais (3 books reviewed)
Private Eyes
Robert Crais Links:

    -AUTHOR SITE: RobertCrais.com
    -EXCERPT: Prologue of The Watchman by Robert Crais
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Robert Crais (IMDB)
    -Robert Crais (Wikipedia)
    -Joe Pike, Created by Robert Crais (Thrilling Detective)
    -INTERVIEW: The Explosive Talents of Robert Crais (Kevin Burton Smith, May 2000, January Magazine)
    -REVIEW: of The Watchman by Robert Crais (
    -REVIEW: of the Watch,man (Mel Odom, BlogCritics)
    -REVIEW: of The Watchman (Sandy Mitchell, Suite 101)
    -REVIEW: of The Last Detective by Robert Crais (Janet Maslin, NY Times)

Book-related and General Links:
    -The Official Robert Crais Web Site
    -The Elvis Cole Web Page
    -INTERVIEW : Robert Crais (Nick Hasted, Guardian Unlimited)
    -INTERVIEW: (Ann Online)
    -INTERVIEW: (JAMES BUCKLEY, JR., Book Page)
    -Interview with Robert Crais (Paul Bishop, Book Radio)
    -INTERVIEW: george jr. / november 1996 / features / q & a / robert crais (George, Jr.)
    -INTERVIEW: ( JIM KNIPPENBERG, The Cincinnati Enquirer)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: (Oline Cogdill, The Mystery Corner, Orlando Sun-Sentinel)
    -PROFILE: Cooking secrets no mystery to writer: Detective Elvis Cole learned to cook from his creator, crime novelist Robert Crais, who fixes a fine filet of beef (Sara Perry, Columnist, The Oregonian)
    -EXCERPT: Excerpt from L. A. Requiem  by Robert Crais
    -Elvis Cole Created by Robert Crais (Thrilling Detective)
    -REVIEW: of LA Requiem   (Oline Cogdill, The Mystery Corner, Orlando Sun-Sentinel)
    -REVIEW: of LA Requiem (SA Stolnak, Seattle Times)
    -REVIEW : of L.A. Requiem by Robert Crais (Robert Ward, San Francisco Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: Tangled Web UK Review - LA Requiem by Robert Crais May 1999
    -REVIEW: of LA Requiem  Crime novelist reaches higher level (Terrence Brejla,  Special to The Denver Post )
    -REVIEW: of LA Requiem (Mike Shea, Austin Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: Robert Crais's 'L.A. Requiem' (Dave Kvidahl, Indiana Statesman)
    -REVIEW: Tangled Web UK Review - Indigo Slam by Robert Crais Sep 98
    -REVIEW: of Indigo Slam (Tom Corcoran, Book Page)
    -Mostly Fiction: recommended books by Robert Crais
    -Reviews from Ed's Internet Book Review
    -REVIEW: of   Robert Crais, Stalking the Angel (SF Site)
    -Edgar Awards (awarded by the  Mystery Writers of America)
    -The Shamus Awards (Bestowed by the Private Eye Writers of America)

GENERAL
    -African American Mystery Page
    -Black Street Fiction
    -Crime Writers (David King)
    -Dangerous Dames: A Timeline of Some of the Major Female Eyes (Thrilling Detectives)
    -Edgar Award: Best First Novel
    -Film Noir and Pulp Fiction
    -A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection
    -Gumshoe Site
    -Hardboiled : online reference site for all things noir
    -Hardboiled Heaven
    -Hard Boiled Noir Webring
    -Martin's Film Noir Page
    -Mysterious Home Page
    -MysteryNet.com: The Online Mystery Network
    -Mystery Net Awards Page
    -No Night Sweats
    -RARA-AVIS : mailing list devoted to the discussion of hardboiled (and noir) fiction
    -The Reader's Corner presents  Female Sleuths
    -Thrilling Detective Website
    -Twists, Slugs and Roscoes: A Glossary of Hardboiled Slang
    -Women of Mystery (Bookaholic)

Other recommended books by Robert Crais:
    -The Monkey's Raincoat (1988)
    -Stalking the Angel
    -Lullaby Town
    -Free Fall
    -Sunset Express
    -Voodoo River
    -Indigo Slam

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