Byline: Diana Pinckney
When mystery writer Robert Crais was
a 14-year-old in Baton Rouge, he had
a three-week career as a barker for the ball-toss concession in the carnival. "It
was a colorful midway with rides and attractions, sort of seedy, like the kind of
thing you'd see on the 'X Files,' " he recalls. He got fired when he blew the human
cannonball's cover in front of an audience.
More than 25 years later, when Crais
describes his current career, he reaches back
to the midway metaphor. "When you write books, it's like owning your own circus,
and you're the ringmaster."
Crais, creator of detective Elvis Cole,
is indeed a master of the mystery. His and
Elvis' fifth adventure, "Voodoo River," is just out and earning raves in all the right
places. "The Monkey's Raincoat," his previous book, won both an Anthony and a
Macavity award. (Ed.: previous, sure, but there were 3 books in between...)
"Voodoo River" is Crais' first book
to be set in his native state, taking place
primarily in Ville Platte, Eunice and Baton Rouge, with a trip or two to New
Orleans thrown in.
"Growing up in Louisiana, I was familiar with
those towns and the areas of
Cajun country that I use in the book," he said. "Although my other four books
are set in Los Angeles, I've always wanted to write about Louisiana."
The plot of "Voodoo River" hinges on adoption,
specifically that of a
television star who hires Elvis to search for her birth parents in Louisiana.
As he does research, Elvis encounters illegal immigration, small-town
sheriff's department politics, a crawfish farm that doubles as a money
laundry, and blackmail, pure and simple.
Crais himself is adopted. "When I decided
to tell the adoption story, I
knew I wanted to go home to tell it," he said. Crais remembered most
of the settings from his childhood. "In the backwards way I do things, I
structured the book, plotted it out and then came to Louisiana to do research."
When he began the book, Crais was
trying to trace his own medical back-
ground. "I was discovered to have what is euphemistically called an electro-
cardial anomaly," he said, "and I wanted to find out if there was a birth family
history of heart disease. I wasn't seeking a reunion or looking to invade anyone's
Writing the book was an emotional process,
Crais said. "A lot of emotions
that I had never experienced and never dealt with came up as I was writing,"
he said. "I have never been someone who felt this big emptiness in my life
and I never had any interest in locating my birth parents. As Jodi Taylor says
many times in the book, and she speaks in my voice when she says it, my mom
and dad are my mom and dad, and they always will be.
"But as I tried to find out if there were some
congenital problem that could
accelerate, I did have to start thinking about what if I can't learn what I need
to learn in this anonymous fashion. What if there has to be a personal approach?
What if I have a reunion with these people? How am I going to address them?"
Crais created Jodi Taylor, the seeker, and
her lawyer Lucy Chenier, the
satisfied adoptee who has no interest in finding her birth family, "as a way of
working out how I felt."
As his work on the book progressed, Crais
found the information he sought
on his medical background through "non-identifying information" from state
records. It was reassuring, he said. "One thing led to another and I was able to
find out I am fine."
Personal experiences tend to shape Crais' mysteries
Monkey's Raincoat," for example, focuses on a thirty-something Los
Angeles housewife whose agent-husband becomes involved in seedy, shady
deals before he disappears. Ellen doesn't even know how to write a check,
and Elvis gently teaches her, even as he's tracking her missing mate.
Crais explains that the book is really about
"me helping my mom to indep-
endence. In 1985 my dad died. After the funeral, I realized my mother wasn't
equipped to write checks and pay bills because my dad did that for 35 years.
I taught her. Then I transmogrified all that into a crime novel."
Crais began his career as a Hollywood screenwriter,
with scripts for "Hill
Street Blues," "Cagney & Lacey," "Miami Vice" and "LA Law." He prefers the
freedom he has in books to the strictures of television or movies, however.
"Books allow me a much broader canvas," he said.
"I get to meet these random
characters. Sometimes they're funny and sometimes they're dangerous, and
sometimes they're just like the person next door. Then I have a really good time
getting them into trouble and an even better time watching them get out."
Don't look for Elvis Cole to come to the big or
small screen, though. Not ever.
Several networks have tried to buy Elvis and develop him into a series, but Crais,
like his fellow former-screenwriter-turned-mystery-author Sue Grafton, refuses to
"I used to think it was just fine to make Elvis
into a movie, but as the books have
progressed, I realized I just didn't want to see him on TV or on the screen. I like
him too much. I know what would happen to the project. It would change him. It
would be called Elvis Cole, but it wouldn't be Elvis Cole. It wouldn't deliver
what the books do to the reader. And if something like that were done to Elvis,
my fans would kill me." Elvis' next outing is scheduled for publication a year
from now. It will be called "Wild Girl" and set in Los Angeles. (Ed.: the title
was changed at some point to "Sunset Express".)
Crais himself, however, will keep coming
back to Louisiana, a trip he makes
about once a year. "I can't go too long without crawfish," he said. "So my wife
says go home and have some.
"One of my favorite things to do is go to Louisiana
and gain weight."
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