Byline: Beverly Beyette
LOS ANGELES - Robert Crais swears, "It still always surprises
me when I
find a real human being who's read one of my books." Never mind that his
detective fiction has sold hundreds of thousands of copies. "Deep inside, I'm
still 14 years old in Baton Rouge, La." He adds, "You can't tell me L.A. isn't
magic." Crais, a lean, boyish 46, is sitting before book-filled shelves in
the living room of his home in the hills above Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley.
He's talking about Demolition Angel, his new thriller just out from Doubleday
that doesn't even mention his popular detective, Elvis Cole.
For this book, he created Carol Starkey, a chain-smoking, boozing LAPD
detective fighting to get back her job on the bomb squad three years after
almost being blown to bits. She is cynical and sarcastic. Edgy and tough-minded
and profane. And, somehow, you can't help but like her. She is tough as nails on
the outside. On the inside, says Crais, she's falling apart, "two heartbeats
away from exploding herself."A starred Publishers Weekly review described
Starkey as "one of the most complex heroines to grace a thriller since Clarice
Starling locked eyes with Hannibal Lecter." Demolition Angel was sold to
Columbia TriStar before it was even finished and is destined to be a motion
picture. Starkey's creator, who may or may not have a say in casting her,
says, "Ashley Judd would be terrific. Sandra Bullock would be terrific."
It's all a long way from there - Baton Rouge - to here, from rejection slips to
It was 1976 when Crais, having "hung around for five years"
State University studying mechanical engineering, quit school and followed
his dream to Los Angeles. Eight months after landing, he sold his first TV
script, to Baretta. To pay the rent, he "lugged mail crates up three flights of
stairs all day long." He also cleaned dog runs.
He had no contacts in show business, knew zilch about script-writing.
So he'd buy used scripts for $2.50 apiece, study them and actually measure
their length. And he watched lots of TV. His second break came when Jack
Klugman hired him as story editor on Quincy, M.E., a gig that lasted 18 months.
He was beginning to believe in the magic that lures hopefuls to Los
As he says, "Nobody goes to Bogalusa, La., because they have a dream."It's
certainly not what his parents had in mind for their only child, whom they
adopted when he was 5 months old. His father, an Exxon oil refinery
worker, hoped his son would be the first in the family to work in Exxon
management. Crais' was a family in which "everyone either worked for
Exxon or was a police officer, a very blue-collar, working-class family."
But young Crais had other ideas.
"I was the kid in the library. I was the kid who read voraciously, the
with the Super-8 movie camera making his own movies. As far back
as I can remember, I wanted to tell stories."As a teen-ager, he discovered
the novels ofRaymond Chandler and "wanted to see if I could do that.
Raymond Chandler was one of the people who turned me on to the crime novel,
and to L.A." Later, he devoured the works of Dashiell Hammett and Ross
But as a "baby writer," Crais cut his literary teeth in
science fiction. At
the time, "there wasn't much of a market for mystery short stories, but a
huge marketplace for science fiction." He began submitting short stories
to magazines and getting rejections. He was 23 when he made his first sale.
He was destined to be a novelist, he just knew it. He did churn out
novels - "They were the worst. They were the Great American Novel.
They were me trying to learn how to write a book," convinced that it was
a matter of sticking paper in the typewriter, waiting for "divine inspiration"
and then - voila! - "500 pages later you've created art.I didn't have a story
to tell. They were just dogs. It was me typing." His first published novel,
The Monkey's Raincoat, an original paperback from Bantam in 1987, was
rejected by nine publishers. That it found an audience, Crais says, was
due to the persistence of obscure booksellers "who were hand-selling it
to customers."It went on to garner him the first of three nominations for the
Edgars - sort of the mystery writers' Oscar - this one in the best original
The genesis of that novel was the death of his father in 1985 and his
realization that, after 45 years of marriage, his mother "had never
written a check, paid a bill, used a credit card." It was, he recalls,
"that moment when our roles reversed and I became the parent. I
used my writing to sort out my life and help me make sense of things."
Specifically, he created a character he named Ellen Lang, an anachronistic
woman who, like his mother, found herself unprepared for life without her
The book introduced Elvis Cole, the detective whose adventures would
fill the pages of seven later Crais novels, most recently last year's
L.A. Requiem. He named him Elvis partly in homage to his mother, a
big Presley fan who hung a portrait of that Elvis on the wall of the Crais
But he also wanted a name that would set Cole apart from an older
generation of detectives like Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer. Elvis Cole
is not a "no-guff kind of private eye" with a bottle of booze in his desk drawer
and a life populated with carbon-copy bleached blondes.
"Elvis," he explains, "is much more of a modern male. Besides, Mike
had much of a sense of humor."When Doubleday signed Crais to a three-book
contract, it was with the expectation that after L.A. Requiem, it would get two
more Elvis Cole escapades. Crais had a different idea.
The author, convinced that Requiem was "the peak of my career, that
never be better than this," decided to create a new central character, Carol
Starkey. He didn't bother to tell his publisher, afraid the response would be,
"Hey, Crais has lost his mind." So he just wrote, answering the publisher's
queries with vague responses such as, " 'It's going great.' They just assumed it
was another Elvis Cole book."In time, "they read it, they flipped over it. It
was full speed ahead." The plot of Demolition Angel: An earthquake shakes
L.A. as Starkey and her supervisor/lover are closing in on a bomb. He
is killed; she is resuscitated after almost three minutes dead. Three years later,
she finds herself on the trail of a bomber-for-hire called "Mr. Red," who
targets her as one of his victims.
It was while Crais was researching L.A. Requiem that he
with the Los Angeles Police Department's bomb squad facility and the men
and women who make up the squad. He wondered what motivates them.
Detonating a pipe bomb, he says, is like "approaching a sleeping pit bull."
One wrong move and you may be ripped to pieces.
It's a macho world, and the "bomb chicks" in particular interested him.
"It's one thing to think of a 6-foot, 200-pound male wearing a 95-pound
armor suit," another to picture a woman wearing something that weighs
almost as much as she does and is like "being wrapped in heavy blankets."
Besides, he says, "I'm attracted to smart women, strong women."Currently,
he's juggling the next Elvis Cole book, the screenplay for Demolition Angel
and another novel, in which he promises to introduce "a whole new character"
about which he'll give no hints.
As for Starkey, he says, "I'll probably never write about her again,
these things take on a life of their own. This enthusiasm for her, and for the
book - that's kind of persuasive. I may not be able to let go of her. I fell in
love with her." Crais is nothing if not prolific, having turned out nine novels
in 13 years and amassed an impressive list of TV credits, including Hill
Street Blues, Cagney & Lacey, Miami Vice, L.A. Law and a handful
of movies of the week.
"I'm a very structured person," he says. "I write seven days a week."
starts about 4:30 a.m. with a good run or a session in the gym. "Typically, I'm
at my Macintosh by 7." He'll write until about 3, unless he's on "deadline
hell," when he'll put in 12- or 14-hour days in his home office.
If he needs a break, he may retreat to the kitchen - "I absolutely love
cook" - and whip up one of the dishes from his native Louisiana: gumbo,
jambalaya, or red beans and rice.
When he needs insights into characters' psyches or the world of "shrinks,"
he turns to wife Pat, a psychotherapist. When in need of inspiration, Crais
finds it in the landscape of Los Angeles. It was while jogging at Lake
Hollywood that he came up with the plot line for L.A. Requiem, in
which a woman's body is found in the lake.
He may visit onetime haunts of other L.A. writers such as Robert Heinlein
or James M. Cain. "When I see where they lived, I'm that 14-year-old
boy ...it excites me to think maybe in some small way I'm making some
contribution to that literary fabric." Crais is finally beginning to believe
that real people are out there reading his books. L.A. Requiem brought a
"Dear Bob" fan letter from President Clinton. "I never met the man," he
says. "I was floored."
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