Byline: Jeff Guinn
In 1985, Robert Crais' father died.
Two years later, Elvis Cole, Robert Crais'
fictional clone, came
to life as a private eye in The Monkey's Raincoat.
It is a bittersweet fact: The loss of his dad
led Crais, now 42, to a
career as one of the bestselling mystery writers in the country.
"I was an only child, and when Dad died I learned
my mother had no
idea how to write a check or pay a bill or take care of herself," Crais
says. "I had the unexpected responsibility of teaching her to do every-
day things, and I was mad, angry, confused. I thought I would write
about it so I could understand it. That was the genesis of Elvis Cole,
a private detective who is really me. " In The Monkey's Raincoat,
Elvis helps a woman on an urgent search for her missing husband, a
man who took care of every detail of her life. Now that she's alone,
she can't cope.
The Monkey's Raincoat was a smash hit, beginning
a series of Elvis Cole
whodunit yarns. The current tale, titled Sunset Express (Hyperion, $ 21.95),
has already found its way to national and Tarrant County bestseller lists.
This isn't surprising: All six of Crais' books have landed on bestseller lists,
including The New York Times and USA Today.
In itself, a first novel doing well is a near-miracle.
But in 1989 Crais had
already experienced near-miracles during his efforts to become a self-described
"baby writer. "
In 1976, Louisiana native Crais was
about to graduate from Louisiana State
University in Baton Rouge with a degree in mechanical engineering. But he
also enjoyed writing, and had been able to sell two short stories to little-known
magazines. He woke up one morning and decided to make a radical career change
even before his engineering career had begun.
"I just thought I liked writing so much that after
graduation I'd drive to Los Angeles
and make my fortune as a TV writer," Crais says with a chuckle. "When I got
there my first step was to find a copy of a TV script so I could see, for the first
time, what one looked like. " As with thousands of other TV writer wannabes,
Crais wrote a few sample scripts and began making the rounds of TV production
And with the odds 1 to 100,000 against him, he sold a script right away.
"I remember it was for Baretta," Crais
recalls. "For the next nine years I
wrote exclusively for TV, with an emphasis on police and detective shows -
Quincy, Hill Street Blues, Cagney and Lacey- just a ton of stuff. "
His father's death and his mother's subsequent
helplessness sparked Elvis Cole
and The Monkey's Raincoat. As an established TV writer, Crais had enough
professional credentials to be signed by a literary agent, and the book was
eventually sold after a few initial publisher turn-downs.
"I didn't mean for Elvis to go beyond that one
book, but I found readers liked
him and I did, too," Crais said. "I had created him to embody all my sensi-
bilities, my attitudes, my likes and dislikes. So as I would go through my life
seeing injustices, I could turn to Elvis Cole in my books to express to a lot of
people what I felt and how some things could be changed. "
Crais' six Elvis Cole mysteries have established
a pattern of plot and character
quirks. In each, the initial case to be solved evolves into a convoluted, usually
unexpected mystery. And in each, there are strong female characters whose resolve
and abilities match or exceed Cole's.
"One of the greatest compliments I've gotten is
that I write as though I respect and
like women," Crais notes. "And since it's true of me in real life, it's obviously
true of Elvis. "
Now a resident of an LA suburb where he lives
with his wife and 15-year-old
daughter, Crais says he has moved away from TV scripts to concentrate on
writing full time. Each Elvis Cole novel takes about nine or 10 months from
conception to completion, a schedule he'd like to keep into the indefinite future.
As Crais writes, he likes to read - and
study - other mystery writers he admires.
A pet Crais peeve is critics who routinely dismiss mystery novels as second-class
"If they say that about all mystery novels, my
reaction is that they're coming from a
place of ignorance," he growls. "Some of the finest writing today comes under the
mystery umbrella. Think of Joyce Carol Oates, of James Ellroy, or April Smith, a
new writer who did North of Montana. These are good writers no matter what category
in which they choose to write. Stylistically they create big themes, big stories. "
Sunset Express finds Crais, via Elvis
Cole, venting literary wrath on "super-
lawyers, the ones who provide what I call rich man's injustice," he explains.
"From the Menendez brothers' trial, from the Simpson trial certainly, some of
these people are sending the message that if you spend enough money you don't
have to be responsible for your actions. I have a growing sense of anger and
outrage, a belief this is wrong. So Elvis is hired by the defense team of a rich
man, finds they're willing to do anything to hide the truth, and reacts to that. "
Future Elvis Cole adventures will mirror
Crais' viewpoint of ongoing events.
The author does not expect his alter ego character to get bored.
"Society is an ongoing evolution, so as a writer
I have to evolve, too," he concludes.
"As things change, so will the things that happen to Elvis. I'm looking forward to
seeing what he does next, too."
An Elvis anthology
Author Robert Crais has written six
Elvis Cole mystery novels. The first
four are available in paperback. Here are capsule summarizations of all six:
The Monkey's Raincoat, 1987:
Private eye Cole is hired by Ellen Craig (sic) to find her missing husband and
son. The plot line mirrors Crais' real-life dilemma with his widowed mother,
an adult who avoided acquiring basic survival skills.
Stalking the Angel, 1989:
Cole is hired by billionaire Bradley Warren to locate a 13th-century Japanese
manuscript. Much of the action takes place in the Los Angeles district of Little
China. Crais' descriptive skills take off.
Lullaby Town, 1992:
A filmmaker wants Cole to locate the wife he divorced and the son he abandoned
years ago. She's somewhere on the East Coast, and, for the first time, Cole ventures
outside his native Los Angeles. Eventually the Mafia gets involved. Crais' plot
and characters aren't as fully developed this third time out.
Free Fall, 1993:
Crais and Elvis rebound with perhaps the best of the Cole whodunits. Back home
in LA, Elvis has to uncover a cop's secrets, and deal with the worst elements of an out-of-control LAPD.
Voodoo Express, 1994 (Ed.: don't these
people fact check???):
Elvis leaves California again, this time to the bayous of Louisiana and creator
Robert Crais' own childhood roots. The case to be solved is undistinguished,
but Crais introduces the fabulous character of Lucy Chenier, who'll follow Elvis
into Sunset Express.
Sunset Express, 1996:
F. Lee Bailey, Robert Shapiro and Johnny Cochran will not like this book. Initially
hired to prove a rich man is innocent of murder, Cole proves just the opposite - and more.
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