Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Robert Crais: Exception and Rule

If you equate the publication of a new book by Robert Crais with crime fiction taking another bold step in the right direction, or look at it simply as the opportunity for one more bodacious reading extravaganza, then you had to smile (as I did) when you heard that Crais was awarded the 2006 Ross Macdonald Award.

That annual commendation “is given to a California writer whose work raises the standard of literary excellence.” Who better to receive it than Crais? No matter how much this author has elevated the crime novel, with both his private-eye series and standalone works; and no matter how much the fictional Elvis Cole (with help from his sidekick, Joe Pike) has advanced P.I. fiction over the years, after grabbing the baton from Lew Archer and Philip Marlowe, there is still another significant dimension in play here: the way in which the enormously talented Crais has benefited literature, as a whole. And you can make that Literature, by the way. (Don’t forget, either, that the man has written for several outstanding TV shows, including Baretta, Vega$, Quincy, M.E., Hill Street Blues, and Cagney & Lacey. And, hey, TV scripts count as part of the literary canon, according to my definition. You have a problem with that?)

Shortly after he won this Ross Macdonald Award, I contacted Crais and asked him to share with us just a few thoughts regarding his latest achievement. And, of course, I had to ask him about the upcoming Joe Pike book (The Watchman, due out in February). The results of all this are below. Dig it.

Anthony Rainone: You have received many accolades over the years for your writing. How does receiving the Ross Macdonald Award compare?

Robert Crais: Gratifying. That’s probably the best word. The Macdonald Award--the Ross Macdonald Literary Award--was established to honor Macdonald, but the selections are made without genre restrictions or requirements. Ray Bradbury was a past recipient. [So was] Mark Salzman. Cool trophy, too. Everyone who comes to the house has to genuflect.

AR: Macdonald was a big influence on you. What has his work meant to you? Do you have a favorite novel of his? Do you remember which one you read first?

RC: The Chill, on both counts. Reading the man underlined that human-ness was a fit and appropriate base for a crime novel, just as it was for any novel. Chandler and Hammett both hinted at this, but it was more in subtext. Macdonald just flopped it right out on the table. “Here it is, bro--dig or split! Interesting characters are damaged goods--now we’re going to see the how and why, and what it means.”

AR: The award is for literary excellence. How has detective fiction positively contributed to literature?

RC: We’re jazz. Particularly the P.I., the on-the-outside-looking-in investigator, the self-employed work-for-hire outlaw intruder--when I read the old books, when I step far enough back to get a historical perspective, I think these characters explore who we are as Americans, what we hope for, what we fear, what we’re willing to stand up for. What jazz is to music, detective fiction is to literature. Another color on the palette. The more colors you have, the richer you are.

AR: When you started writing P.I. fiction, I’m sure you heard it was a dying subgenre. It’s still here today, however. So, where do you see P.I. fiction heading? Are we going to be reading private-eye novels 50 years from now? And do you think Ross Macdonald will continue to be an influence?

RC: Bro, when I wrote The Monkey’s Raincoat, my own agent said I was wasting my time! Been done!! The P.I. is dead!! The white boy P.I. is so dead, he never existed!!! This shit makes me laugh. Listen, we’re talking about an iconic character here--an archetype. Nobody is writing about snap-brimmed pugs in zoot suits circa 1930. The characters change. The genre evolves. That’s the way it always has been and will be. Emerging writers will contribute their voices and ideas and experiences. Bet your ass we’ll be reading detective fiction 50 years from now.OK, I can hear you saying it--“but the publishers say they aren’t buying P.I. novels!” That’s what they were saying when I wrote Monkey. Publishing is cyclic. This, too, is something that always has been and will be true. Publishers chase heat like everyone else, but heat is a sneaky motherfucker. If a publisher reads a manuscript that knocks their socks off, they’re going to buy it. As for Macdonald’s influence--having been influential, he will always be influential, whether his work is read or not. This applies to Hammett, Chandler, and anyone else who has made contributions. Works like this: If Macdonald influenced me, and you read me, and my work influences you, then you’ve been influenced by Macdonald even without reading him. This is how Hammett and Chandler continue to influence new generations of writers. Through Robert B. Parker. Through Mike Connelly. [Harlan] Coben. Me. Academics write dissertations about this kind of thing.

AR: I know a Joe Pike book is coming out. That’s awesome. I think fans have been eagerly waiting for one. Does Elvis feature in it at all?

RC: Elvis is in it, but Joe is the star. I’m showing sides of Joe Pike I’ve never revealed--what it’s like being Pike from the inside. This is one seriously dangerous dude. We see what lurks beneath the surface. A complex man, and a cat you definitely don’t want on your case.

Hey, I don’t want Pike on my case, but I’ll be reading about him with gusto. Bring in on.


Anonymous said...

Great interview, man. I love Crais. Even though Robert B. Parker was my first introduction to the PI field and is a huge inspiration, it's Crais who really showed me where I want to go as a PI writer. I think he took all of the new modern groundwork that Parker laid and knocked it all up a hundred notches. Thanks for these insights into one of my favorite writers.

Ali Karim said...

Superb Work Tony, Crais is The Man


Daniel Hatadi said...

Great interview. These days, the PI novel is either pastiche, a reinvention of the myth by use of a hook such as a stripper/vampire/soccer mom, or living in Crais' shadow.

My own attempts included.