Byline: Arthur Salm
Get this: Three of the four major TV networks,
and any number of movie
producers, want to get their mitts on Elvis Cole, the oddball, smart-mouthed
detective created by writer Robert Crais.
They want Elvis badly -- so badly they've offered
Crais the option to write
the series and be executive producer.
Or the miniseries. Or the movie. Whatever.
They just want Elvis, and they're
willing to pay the author megabucks to hand him over.
"I won't," Crais says. "Not now. Not ever."
As Elvis might put it: Some writer, huh?
Crais, 42, in town recently to promote "Sunset
Express" (Hyperion, $21.95),
his sixth Elvis Cole novel, knows all about television. In the mid-1970s, he
dropped out of college just shy of an engineering degree to come to Los Angeles;
he had the screwy notion he could write for TV. These things never pan out --
except that before long he was selling scripts. A lot of scripts. Scripts to shows
such as "Hill Street Blues."
In 1985 Crais switched to writing
novels, all of them featuring Elvis Cole.
And he's keeping his fictional pal off the big screen and clear of the tube.
Still, he said, when the money guys first approached, he thought about it.
"Then I realized, wait, why did I move away from
this? What drew me to
books? And the answer is, in TV and movies, everything is laid out. Elvis Cole
would suddenly be Alec Baldwin. Or whoever.
"But readers create their own visions. They
invest, in the same way writers
do . . . Reading fiction is demanding -- you must actively participate, or it
Not much guff definitely working for Crais.
The Elvis Cole novels have been
praised by critics (in the Union-Tribune, reviewer Robert Wade called "Sunset
Express" "a private-eye caper that brings back pleasant memories of the glory
days of Hammett and Chandler, minus the cliches and macho posturing") and
have sold well.
The folks at Hyperion, his new publisher, believe
"Sunset Express," published
last month, could be Crais' breakout novel, and that he could soon be one of
the best-selling authors around. To back him up, they sent him on a 27-city tour,
and a few weeks ago sprang for a full-page color ad in the Sunday New York
Times Book Review.
Readers find Elvis Cole irresistible, and it's
easy to see why. His office on L.A.'s
Santa Monica boulevard features Jiminy Cricket figurines and a Pinocchio clock
with eyes that move back and forth. Elvis, a good-hearted wise guy, doesn't take
a lot of guff. But when things start to get deadly, he calls in his quiet, if not quite
silent partner, ex-L.A. cop Joe Pike-- a rock, a mystical semipresence and a practit-
ioner of the Zen of violence.
If a prospective client doesn't like Elvis' attitude,
Elvis points him to the adjoining
room. Pike's office. When the client goes in, he finds the office is empty. No Pike.
No furniture, even.
That's Joe. He answers the phone by saying "Pike."
The greeting on his phone machine
used to say "Speak," but Joe decided that was too wordy. Now it just beeps.
(Elvis' comment: "Some partner, huh?") he's on
to something special with Joe Pike,
and treats him gingerly.
"I don't use him too much," Crais
said. "I recognize the value of that. He's very
enigmatic, mysterious -- a force of nature, and nature has to have secrets. Were I
to say too much, he'd become less intriguing.
"At readings, people are always asking me, Why
does every cop in L.A. hate Joe
Pike? Why did he get thrown off the force?' I know why he left, but it's important
not to say. I like to leave as many blank places as I can for the reader to contemplate.
It's important to know what not to write."
Some things, however, Crais apparently has to write.
"In 1985," he said, "my father died. I was
writing TV. And I learned something about
my mother: She didn't know how to write a check, didn't know how to pay a bill. Here
I was in my early 30s, and I'd never known this about her. Where was I -- sleepwalking
through life? In that moment, the roles were reversed.
"I was confused and disabled, and I needed a way
to work it out. So I stuffed 'me'
into a transmogrifier, like in Calvin and Hobbes,' and out came Ellen Lang," Elvis'
client in "The Monkey's Raincoat," the first novel, "and Elvis.
"She wants to find her husband. She's not
desperate to find him because she's in
love, but because she needs him to take care of her. I wanted in the most personal,
intimate way to explore that need."
Profound cowardice thought there'd be a series
of books. In fact, he plotted Joe
Pike's demise in a shootout at the end of "The Monkey's Raincoat." It was supposed
to be a shattering moment, Crais said. But he enjoyed Joe so much that he couldn't
let him die, so he let him get off with just being wounded.
That kind of thing has occurred again and again
in the Elvis Cole books. Peter Allen
Nelson, Crais points out, is a hotshot young director, and a real jerk, in "Lullaby Town,"
the third in the series. Yet he has matured, become something of a nice guy.
"And who would have thought that," Crais
said, "at the beginning of Lullaby Town'?
He and Elvis have even become kind of friends . . .
"You create a character you like, and you bond.
They grow and change, just like we do.
And they don't go away when you stop writing about them."
Although Elvis Cole is something of an alter ego
for Crais ("I use Elvis to help clarify
the world for me"), the author owns up to significant differences between them. For
example, he said, "I'm a profound coward. I run at the first sign of conflict. I express
my courage vicariously through Elvis and Joe."
His books, like his characters, are changing.
There's not as much overt violence in
"Sunset Express," for example, as in earlier works.
"It's a function of my evolving," Crais
said. "If you're writing from the heart and
writing honestly, you're charting your life. Here's where I am, April 1996: Sunset
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