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Evolving the Detectives

  The Last Detective


Robert Crais

Doubleday, 2003

Rating: 4.4

    Soul Circus


George P. Pelecanos

Little, Brown, 2003

Rating: 3.8

Posted: March 16, 2003

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Every now and then, when a critic wants to call attention to how great he or she thinks a particular mystery novel or crime author is, a troubling phrase is invoked: Something along the lines of "So-and-so escapes the bonds of mere genre fiction to create a real work of literature." Heck, I've probably done it myself. But that statement is an incorrect and leading one, for its core assumption is that the two -- literature and crime fiction -- are mutually exclusive. In fact, it's not just crime fiction that's assumed to be the opposite of "real" literature, it's serial fiction in general. (This would seem to disqualify many works of fiction -- John Updike's "Rabbit" series, for example. But I digress.)

It's not hard to distinguish the literary merits of, say, a James Ellroy novel from those of a Mickey Spillane potboiler. But in the great middle ground of modern crime fiction, the line is more blurred than that. One means, then, of determining "literary merit" as it applies to serialized fiction is to discern whether the particular story in question has a purpose beyond merely extending the life of its franchise. In other words, does a particular detective or crime novel offer some glimmer of meaning or purpose, or does it exist simply for the sake of existing, like an installment in the mechanical B-grade "Executioner" paperbacks of Don Pendleton?

By this admittedly arbitrary benchmark, two recent detective novels -- both by established authors and featuring recurring characters -- raise some interesting questions. In Soul Circus, a tightly-constructed suspense tale by acclaimed crime novelist Pelecanos, revisits Derek Strange and Terry Quinn, the protagonists of two previous books, Right as Rain and Hell to Pay. But paradoxically, it's the focus on characters other than Strange and Quinn that elevates the book above the level of a boilerplate thriller. Soul Circus is at its best when the action, and the author's deft hand at characterization, are focused on other characters: small time drug dealer Dewayne Durham; Dewayne's awkward and impetuous half-brother Mario; Dewayne's rival drug dealer, Horace McKinley; and Ulysses Foreman, a former cop turned illegal gun dealer. When Mario murders a woman he hired Strange to find for him, Strange and Quinn find themselves on the edge of the increasingly volatile rivalry between the younger Durham and McKinley. Strange's work on behalf of jailed crime figure Granville Oliver, on trial and facing the death penalty, ultimately puts him at cross purposes with McKinley, who's working for Oliver's turncoat former lieutenant.

Pelecanos relies too heavily on certain narrative tics -- his excessive use of street jargon such as "hooptie" while inside the heads of his drug dealers is more grating than effective -- but he skillfully weaves these characters together in a serpentine tale that unfolds with the fluid grace of vintage Elmore Leonard. All except for Quinn, that is, whose big dramatic moment feels tacked-on, and the aftermath of which is ineptly handled. Strange, meanwhile, exhibits a frustrating tendency to vigilantism that feels slightly out of character, especially since he's often given to admonishing the hotheaded Quinn to exercise more restraint.

Although the series of books focuses, at least nominally, on the two central detectives, Pelecanos seems more comfortable using them as a means of exploring ripped-from-the-headlines issues such as teenage runaways, the death penalty and the illegal gun trade. Strange, in particular, by all appearances the anchor of this series, at times comes across as little more than a cipher through whom the author feeds us ham-fisted messages. (He also has an embarrassing habit of conveniently spouting large chunks of expository dialogue.) As a result, the series, while growing more engaging with each installment, increasingly feels like a series of treatments for issue-themed TV-movies-of-the-week. One wishes Pelecanos, a skilled craftsman whose credits also include writing for the engrossing HBO series The Wire, didn't feel the need to cross over into borderline sermonizing, especially during a scene in which Strange, aided by new acquaintance Nick Stefanos (the protagonist of other Pelecanos books), commits arson against a legal gun shop run by a less-than-scrupulous owner. While his characters do evolve, grow and undergo changes, the reader can't escape the notion that these developments are secondary to the author's capital-M messages. By this measure, then, despite the author's depth of characterization and rich eye for detail, his Strange/Quinn books seem to fall just short of our arbitrary definition of "literary."

Conversely, The Last Detective, the ninth Robert Crais novel to feature his wisecracking L.A. detective Elvis Cole, is a richly developed tale, a formulaic (in the best sense of that term) page-turner that manages to offer more than just a competent kidnap thriller. The reliable Elvis Cole novels have always proven satisfying reads, thanks as much to the author's deft hand at suspense-building as to his winning characterization of the charming Cole. Satisfying, yes, well-crafted, certainly, but often just that: well made thrillers perfect for a plane ride or an afternoon at the beach, but hardly profound.

At first blush, The Last Detective gives every indication of following in the author's time-proven formula. Ben Chenier, the ten-year-old son of Cole's girlfriend Lucy, is abducted literally under Cole's nose, and a threatening phone call suggests it's payback for an alleged misdeed from the detective's past. Crais is masterful at piling twist upon twist, at building and maintaining a high level of tension, and The Last Detective is no exception. As Cole and his partner and friend Joe Pike attempt to unravel the mystery of Ben's disappearance, the reader is fully immersed in the gut-wrenching anxiety such a situation produces. Even though the reader is occasionally given access to Ben's point of view, the apprehension never subsides. And although the culprit behind the kidnapping proves a surprise only by the Hollywood definition of the word -- alert readers will at least guess at his identity fairly early on -- Crais employs enough classic misdirection to keep the pages turning.

Not everything about The Last Detective runs with clockwork precision: Carol Starkey, the protagonist of Demolition Angel, a stand-alone, non-Cole-related Crais novel, figures into the proceedings (much like Pelecanos's Stefanos does in Soul Circus), but apparently for no more reason than that Crais liked the character enough to want to shoehorn her in. There's no real significance to her presence here; she could be any other female detective. Which is a shame, because in Demolition Angel Crais developed her as a fascinating character; wounded, both physically and mentally, driven and layered.

The best thing about The Last Detective, though, is that he does the same for Elvis Cole. The kidnapper's allusion to Cole's service in the Vietnam conflict triggers a flashback in which the detective, then an 18-year-old Army Ranger, experiences the horrors of combat in a frighteningly visceral manner. Cole's relationship to his absentee mother is also explored, in brief interludes that may be the book's most resonant moments. These clues to Cole's past don't offer as many insights into his character as we got into Pike's in L.A. Requiem, this book's predecessor: In that book, Pike, too often a textbook example of the brooding loner sidekick, was fleshed out in a way that isn't matched here. Still, the glimpses into Cole's backstory are far more affecting than is the norm in most detective novels. Like Dennis Lehane, Crais allows his character to experience, show and be affected by real fear, and his prototypical wise-guy P.I. is thus more fully shaded, more rounded and compelling a character, than most.

Thus does Crais transcend, as he did in L.A. Requiem, the formula he so ably employs. Does this make his Cole books capital-A Art? Not quite: For all their revelations, neither book makes us completely forget their genre trappings in the way that Lehane's grit-infused novels do. Still, the seamless fusion of journeyman suspense thriller and character study elevates The Last Detective above the status of a good beach read in a way that Soul Circus, for all its noble windmill-tilting, does not.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterwork
 4.0-4.9: Great read
 3.0-3.9: Well done
 2.0-2.9: Ordinary
 1.1-1.9: Sub par
 0.0-1.0: Horrendous

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