It was my fellow Rap Sheet blogger Anthony Rainone who, last October, tipped us off to the forthcoming release of Robert Crais’ long-awaited Joe Pike standalone, The Watchman. He followed up recently with an excellent review of that new novel for January Magazine. Being another big, big fan of private-eye novelist Crais, and having had the chance to interview him last year over a lengthy breakfast meeting in Manchester, England, I too was very much looking forward to reading The Watchman.
I wasn’t disappointed upon finally reading the novel. It’s a remarkable thriller that for the first time puts Los Angeles P.I. Elvis Cole’s sidekick, erstwhile Marine and LAPD maverick Joe Pike--“the man with few words”--at the very hub of the action. I’ve read with alacrity Crais’ previous Cole books, including 2005’s The Forgotten Man, and wondered on occasion whether he’d ever have the audacity to put Pike center stage--and if he did, what the result would be. I need wonder no longer. Pike featured heavily in one of my favorite crime novels of all time, L.A. Requiem (1999), and I have to say that Watchman equals that earlier work as a masterpiece of modern crime fiction. Whereas Requiem used poignancy as its compelling force, Watchman uses sheer velocity. This book zips along faster than Pike’s bullets.
The tale begins with wealthy 22-year-old playgirl-socialite Larkin Connor Barkley becoming involved in a car accident in L.A., after which the three men in the Mercedes she just hit escape the scene. It turns out that one of that other car’s occupants was a South American drug-cartel money launderer and his companions were shady real-estate developers--all people under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice. Soon, Larkin’s life is threatened, and Pike is enlisted to protect the reckless heiress. But he’ll need help from the one man he can truly trust: Elvis Cole, who’s still recovering from the damage he had to endure in The Forgotten Man. Together, they’ll go about hunting the hunters, figuring out the angles (and dangers presented by) federal agents, and preventing the lovely Ms. Barkley from destroying herself.
What for me was the most interesting aspect of Watchman was the back story and insights into the enigmatic Joe Pike, especially the history of abuse he suffered at the hands of his father, the time he spent as a member of the Los Angeles Police Department, and his travels in Africa. More, I’m sure, will be revealed in future installments of this series, as Crais genuinely seems to enjoy writing about Pike. We shall see.
Last week, as The Watchman was making its debut across the UK, its author paid a short, three-day visit to Europe, meeting reviewers, booksellers, and assorted species of media folk. His British publishing house, Orion, made the man from Louisiana work hard. Crais’ two bookstore visits were at Waterstone’s in Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire, and at No Alibis in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
During that time, I was fortunate enough to again interview Crais. We talked about Pike’s starring role in The Watchman, the value of sidekicks in this genre, and the author’s relationship to his continuing characters.
Ali Karim: The most obvious question first. What made you put Joe Pike at the center of your new novel?
Robert Crais: I’ve wanted to write this book from the second or third book in the [Elvis Cole] series. Like many of the readers, I was really intrigued by Joe--this enigmatic figure--because I wanted to know what was going on behind the sunglasses. I first made an attempt at that with L.A. Requiem, and I consider that novel as the first Joe Pike book. But it wasn’t until now when I saw this particular story, thanks to this young woman who became Larkin Connor Barkley, that I had what I felt was the perfect Joe Pike story. Through her I was able to get behind the sunglasses and see the world through Joe Pike’s eyes.
AK: In The Watchman you reveal a great deal about Pike’s past. Did you learn about Pike through the writing process, or did you know his past before?
RC: It’s a mix. I’ve known the large things about Joe right from the beginning, right back to The Monkey’s Raincoat . I didn’t relay them all, but I knew them. The best I can explain it is that it’s akin to joining the dots, over the years: everything comes into focus and the dots connect and a picture forms. It’s the details I’ve learned along the journey that make me understand who Joe Pike is.
AK: Crime-fiction sidekicks such as Pike, Hawk, Dennis Lehane’s Bubba Rogowski, Harlan Coben’s Win [Windsor Horne Lockwood III], et al. have a certain appeal to readers, and morally, they often allow the hero not to be tarnished when there’s a bad guy to kill. So, what’s your take on sidekicks and their morality in crime fiction?
RC: I had a publisher back in the old days, who dubbed Joe Pike as a sociopath. I guess they did that for commercial reasons, but I resented it then and I still don’t believe it today. I think Joe Pike is a very moral guy (from his point of view), ethical, with his own code. He just sees the world differently from you and I. He’s not a slave to what we call the law, so I don’t really think of Joe doing Elvis Cole’s dirty work, I think he functions within his own code and his own universe, and there is a very rigid standard to Joe Pike’s universe, which others have to respect.
AK: Pike is never described in a lot of detail. In fact, he remains one of the most inscrutable figures in contemporary crime fiction. Were you worried when you contemplated a Pike standalone that you would have to reveal too much about the man?
RC: I didn’t worry about it, but I was aware of it. It was never my intention to pull back the curtain and reveal the wizard. From the beginning, I was confident that when you get to the end of The Watchman, you would still feel Joe as being a man of mystery, and [as] enigmatic as you did at the beginning. There is still an enormous level of complexity to him that we have yet to see. He maintains that Zen-like, enigma-like quality. I wanted to preserve that.
AK: I would say that you have some similar mannerisms and share a dress-sense with Elvis Cole. I mean, look at that awful shirt you’re wearing, and those socks! While in London, you should have visited Saville Row ...
RC: [Laughing] I’m not Elvis Cole ...
AK: [Laughing, too] Come on, every time I meet you, you’ve visited Cole’s tailor.
RC: OK, I agree the socks ... But seriously, writers cannibalize themselves and that is what fiction-writing is all about. So when I created characters like Elvis Cole and Joe Pike, I gave them little bits and pieces of myself and people I know, but most of it is fiction. Hey, Elvis Cole is tough; in a “situation,” I’m the first guy under the table. These characters are 99 percent fiction, [but they] end up being metaphors not just for me, but the readers. You imprint and overlay yourself on top of them. Joe is in many ways the most vulnerable of this duo; that’s why he’s built a fortress around himself. There’s a passage in the book where we see how Joe thinks about things and this theory about how the inside person pushes against the outside person, so who we are on the inside influences who we are on the outside--like we create a steel plate for ourselves, often for protection. So when we read about Pike, we can relate to that and we see ourselves and how our inside person influences our exterior person.
AK: Are we going to learn more about Pike’s military background and his African missions in some forthcoming book in this series?
RC: I do touch on it in The Watchman, by indication from his mercenary days. None of this will appear in next year’s book, however, which is an Elvis Cole novel. But I have a notion now for a future Joe Pike book that includes travels not only in Africa, but also Europe.
In addition to spending time one-on-one with Crais, Orion and Waterstone’s have authorized me to release--for the edification of Rap Sheet readers--a couple of short video clips from the event in Milton Keynes. The first of these (click here) details how the author came to write The Watchman, while the second (click here) shows him reading from the novel’s introductory section. (Thanks to Crimespace for hosting these clips.) On top of all that, here’s a slideshow from Crais’ appearance in Milton Keynes.
Without a doubt, The Watchman will feature in my Best of 2007 list. You wanna argue with that? Hah! Go ahead. But first, let me put on my sunglasses and call a guy I know named Joe Pike.
READ MORE: “A Q&A with Robert Crais,” by Chris High (Shots).