Like his detective, Elvis Cole, mystery writer Robert Crais goes his own way

(Knight-Ridder News Service, June 4, 1997)

Byline: Valerie Takahama

Robert Crais politely but firmly declines to pose for a photo reclining
on a chaise lounge by the swimming pool at his home in the Santa
Monica Mountains with a simple explanation: "I don't lounge."

But then he gamely takes off his running shoes and wades into the pool--
socks, jeans, herringbone sport coat, wraparound sunglasses, wry smile
and all.  Go figure.

Hang out with Crais (it rhymes with "space") for a little while and it's
clear that the mystery writer follows his own instincts.

He had a successful and lucrative career as a television writer for hit
shows such as "Hill Street Blues" and "Miami Vice," but he threw it
all away to write novels. It turned out to be a smart move. His Los
Angeles-based private-eye series has caught on with readers and earned
praise from critics who like the books' nice- guy '90s-style hero, Elvis
Cole, and their fresh, post-modern spin on the detective genre.

In the just-released "Indigo Slam" (Hyperion, $ 22.95, 288 pages), the
private eye goes to an apartment to check out a lead and encounters an
elderly neighbor: "I gave her my relaxed smile, the one that says I'm
just a regular guy going about a regular guy's business, then made a big
deal out of checking my watch. ... The World's Greatest Detective swings
into full detective mode to fake out the Housebound Old Lady."

The old lady, though, sees right through him: "What a crock!"

Some typical Elvis Cole observations: "The cat blinked, then bent over and
licked his anus. Cats lead simple lives" and "The Treasury (Department) has
offices on the seventeenth floor of the Roybal Federal Building in downtown
Los Angeles, between the LAPD's Parker Center on one side and the Los Angeles
Federal Metropolitan Correction Center on the other. Cops feel safer when they
cluster."

And yes, the good-looking detective is named after the other Elvis.

"I grew up in Louisiana, and my mother was a hard-core Elvis fan,"  Crais
says. "We had one of those ugly black velvet paintings in our house. There
was the crucifix and there was Elvis.

"To me, that name connotes a kind of funny Americana, and when I created
Elvis Cole I wanted a name that indicated he was going to be different from
any detective out there."

It's safe to say that  Crais,  43, has followed a career path that's different from
most other detective writers.

After studying mechanical engineering at Louisiana State University, he moved
to Hollywood in 1976 and spent a decade writing scripts for TV dramas, includ-
ing "Cagney and Lacey" and "L.A. Law," and movies of the week. He received
an Emmy nomination for his work on "Hills Street Blues," and great reviews
for the 1989 NBC miniseries "Cross of Fire," about the Ku Klux Klan.

Here's another way that he's different: He has only kind words for people he
worked with in television _ "I admire the hell out of his talent," he says of
Don Johnson. But he got little satisfaction out of it.

"I wanted to write more personal stories," he says, "and sometimes you can
do that on TV, but most times you can't. Even excellent TV, 'Hill Street Blues,'
'L.A. Law,' 'Cagney & Lacey,' even the folks writing 'E.R.' and 'NYPD Blue,'
those writers are servicing those series.

"The reason I became a writer is there was something in me that I wanted to
express. You can do that in the books; they're very personal."

He delved into his own experiences for his first Elvis Cole book, "The Monkey's
Raincoat," published as a paperback original by Bantamin 1987. In the novel,
Elvis is approached by a woman whose husband has disappeared, leaving her
and her family desperate and helpless.

Crais says that a few years before he started writing fiction, his father had
died, and it was only then that he discovered how dependent his mother had
been on her husband.

"When my dad passed away I discovered my father had done everything in
that relationship," he says. "My mom had never written a check, never used
a credit card.

"I was stunned. Had I been blind? And in order to help my mother get to a
place where she could function, our roles reversed and I became the adult
to her child."

The seed for the new book was planted when the author accompanied LAPD
detectives who were tracking down suspects with felony warrants against
them.

"We go to this one house looking for this felon, and he's not around, but there
are these kids. Alone. Who takes care of them? They do. It really got me
thinking about this whole phenomenon of what's called thrown-away children,"
he says.

"I like to say I have a 'Calvin and Hobbes' transmogrifier. Real people walk
in, and they're transmogrified into characters. That's what happened. I met this
character named Teri Hewitt. She's 15 years old, two younger siblings, and
she's the adult. She's raising these two kids. Mom's dead, Dad's not around,
she doesn't know where he is. Serious stuff.

"When she walks into Elvis' office, he's got to do something. Is Elvis Cole
going to be able to get this kid a second shot at childhood? That's what keeps
me sitting at my desk for 10 months."

Crais says he does indeed spend 10 months on each book--three months
outlining and seven months writing and polishing. He compares the final
three or four months of writing to the frenzied pace of writing for a hit TV
series.

"I call it deadline anxiety," he says.

And here's a final difference between  Crais  and your  run-of-the-mill
mystery writer: He won't sell the rights to his novels to Hollywood.

"I don't see the book as a finished product. The book to me is a device,
and it's not complete until you read it," he says. "When you read it, you
contribute to that little movie you see in your head.

"My fear is that once someone sees a movie, even a good movie, with a
particular actor, all those potential new readers will see that actor. We
won't be collaborating in the same way.

"It's my intention to keep Elvis between me and the reader. That means a
lot to me."
 
 

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