Monday, February 28, 2011

Monday Book Review: THE SENTRY by Robert Crais

When I read a terrific book I can't wait to tell everyone about it. (I waited on this one though 'cause I finished it last week and wanted to save it for my review today. But it was hard.) As I've mentioned before, Robert Crais is one of the very best writers working today. His Elvis Cole and Joe Pike books are my favorite modern detective series. There are few writers who can
match R.C.'s talent for quick characterization, breathless plotting and for making the men in his books more than one dimensional killing machines.

R.C. laid the groundwork for Cole and Pike's relationship years ago with books set mostly in L.A. and written in the first person from Elvis Cole's often jaunty point of view. Where R.C.'s series excels is in the book-to-book's unwavering devotion to that friendship. Part of my expectation as a reader of this series is to be reassured by the continuation and strength of Elvis and Joe. It is the hub around which all of these stories turn.

When the vegetables were good to go, Cole went upstairs, changed into a T-shirt, then returned to the deck to fire up his Weber. The sky was a beautiful sangria by then, and inspired him to have another beer.

When Cole went in, Joe Pike was in the kitchen. Unannounced and silent as a ghost. The cat was twined between his ankles, purring. Pike was the only person besides Cole the cat would abide.

"White bean salad with grilled veggies we can share. Maybe a little couscous. Carne asada for me. Sound good?"



Notice how the loyal friend prepares his subject for the evening's festivities.

"I'm having a beer. Get one, then you can fill me in while I'm prepping the coals."

Pike took a beer from the fridge. Cole grabbed a third, and followed him out. The cat trailed behind them. He liked to watch the slope for field mice and gophers.

Cole pushed at the coals, which was a completely unnecessary act. Notice the immaculate technique as the World's Greatest Best Friend stalls the moment of truth.....

Later, that evening, when Elvis is forced to reveal some unpalatable truths to Joe:

...Pike remained motionless, floating at the edge of the deck. Cole wished he could see behind the black glasses, but that view was hidden.

....His phone rang. Cole wasn't going to answer, but decided to give Pike some time. He covered the grill then inside for the phone.

.....When Cole put down the phone, he went back to the deck. He wanted to share the one piece of good news he'd gotten that day, but when he stepped outside Joe Pike was gone.


The cat was gone too.


The canyon swallowed his voice.

I think a great part of what R.C. is writing about is this idea of the bond of friendship and what it means, how it develops. How friendship itself becomes a stabilizing force. Without giving anything away, I can say that the very satisfactory ending of THE SENTRY continues to perpetuate that ideal.

The latest books, begun with THE WATCHMAN (2007), are being told from Joe Pike's point of view but not in the first person. Joe Pike is not a 'first person' kind of guy. A solitary man of secrets, Joe is one of the most centered individuals you will ever meet. He is a warrior honed by years of work, first as an L.A. cop then as a mercenary/soldier of fortune. He lives in L.A. and operates a gun shop. He is enigmatic with a capital E, wears sunglasses day and night and has red arrows tattooed on his deltoids. The arrows point forward, always forward - Pike's philosophy of life. He is the coolest dude you will ever meet. But don't tell him I told you that.

In this series of books, we learn a bit more about what Pike thinks of Joe. For instance:
When in THE SENTRY, Joe mentions that Cole is one of those men who thinks he 's funny, you have to laugh. This is so exactly right on the money. If you've read the earlier books you know this already, so the laugh is one of recognition. But it's said in such a bald-faced way, as fact, Joe's not kidding. That's what makes it even funnier, for me.

The Joe Pike books are each written in the dark form of R.C.'s grim classic L.A. REQUIEM. They feature nasty sorts and some pretty ugly violence that sometimes appears to spin out of control. Why these books work, why they are not just run-of-the-mill thriller-dillers is simply because at the heart of these books there is Joe Pike and Elvis Cole.

If not for Elvis and his influence, Joe would likely be dead by now or close enough as makes no difference. Though Elvis is more adaptable, the same thing probably applies to him.

In THE SENTRY, fate takes a hand: Joe Pike stops his red Cherokee jeep (not new but kept looking new by Pike's penchant for keeping everything just so) for air at a Mobil station and from that moment, events take on a life of their own. Joe is the noticing sort, it's what's kept him alive for years. Well, that and the pure fact that he's totally fearless and competent at what he does.

He notices two Latino guys skulking up the block across from the gas station, and decides to take a look and see what they're up to. Just a look. Afterwards he thinks back to that moment and wonders what would have happened if he'd looked the other way, pretended not to notice or minded his own business. But that's not Joe.

The events unfolding inside the takeout shop had happened quickly. When he reached the door, the two men had an older man on the floor, one punching the man's head, the other kicking his back. The man had rolled into a ball, trying to protect himself.

The two hitters hesitated when Pike opened the door, both of them sucking air like surfacing whales. Pike saw their hands were empty, though someone else might have been behind the counter or in the back room...

"You wan' this, bitch? Get outta here."

Pike didn't get out. He stepped inside and closed the door.

Pike saw a flick of surprise in the kicker's eyes, and the puncher hesitated again. They had expected him to run, one man against two, but Pike did not run.

The victim - the man on the floor - still curled into a ball, mumbled - "I'm okay. Jesus - "

- even as the kicker puffed himself larger. He raised his fists and stomped toward Pike, a street brawler high on his own violence, trying to frighten Pike away.

Pike moved forward fast, and the surprised kicker pulled up short, caught off guard by Pike's advance. Then Pike dropped low and accelerated, as smoothly as water flows over rocks. He trapped the man's arm, rolled it backward, and brought the man down hard, snapping the radius bone and dislocating the ulna. He hit the man one time in the Adam's apple with the edge of his hand, the water now swirling off rocks as he rose to face the puncher, only the puncher had seen enough. He scrambled backward across the counter, and bounced off the wall as he ran out a back door.

The kicker gakked like a cat with a hair ball as he tried to breathe and scream at the same time. Pike dropped to a knee, watching the back door as he checked the man for a weapon. He found a nine-millimeter pistol, then left the downed man long enough to make sure no one was behind the counter or in the back room. He returned to the kicker, rolled him onto his belly, then stripped the man's belt to bind his wrists. The man shrieked when Pike twisted the injured arm behind his back, and tried to get up, but Pike racked his face into the floor.

Pike said, "Stop."

Pike had neutralized the assailant and secured the premises in less than six seconds.

Five years before Joe Pike gets involved, Dru Rayne and her uncle fled New Orleans just ahead of Hurricane Katrina. They were on the run from as mercilessly vile a killer as has ever been created. A killer who never gives up, who five years later is still hunting, still on their trail.

After Joe Pike crosses the street from the gas station and steps in to save Dru's uncle from a savage beating by a couple of L.A. gangbangers, he is immediately taken by Dru's attractive guilelessness. There's something about Dru that penetrates Joe's defenses. There's also something about the uncle's behavior that doesn't add up. Joe decides to get more involved even as their initial story begins to unravel. They are in desperate danger, that much Joe knows. Sometimes that's all he needs to know.

In the course of this story, a couple of old friends, characters from previous books make their appearance. John Chen is back. (It's always good to have an 'in' at the L.A. Medical Examiner's office.) So is Lucy Chenier, Louisiana lawyer and one time girlfriend of Elvis Cole. She's back, to help, at least on the phone.

This is the sort of story in which very few things are as they seem and betrayal is commonplace. We get three points of view: that of Joe Pike, that of the killer and that of Elvis Cole, once he's called in. (I'm not fond of killer points of view, but R.C. makes it tolerable.)

I've rarely seen Joe Pike this vulnerable, this unsure of what the truth is. For Joe things are absolute, either black or white. It's hard to read about him floundering a bit in the murky gray.

As you can tell, I am very fond of these characters, this happens sometimes when you've read every book in a series (most of them more than once) from the very beginning and know the characters inside and out. It's hard on an author too, when his readers expect (demand) so much with each book. When a reader has a lot of affection invested in certain characters they don't want certain things to happen and of course, they're always hoping that what they do want to happen will happen. It's not easy being a writer. It's not easy being a fan. Where there's great story-telling and writing, affection and emotion involved, it becomes a kind of symbiotic relationship. A mutual pact.

Very rarely does R.C. let me down. That's one of the reasons I love these books.

For a quick look at all the titles in the Elvis and Joe series, please check here


  1. What Robert Crais puts on paper may not be Beowulf, but it's pretty dang close. Got to be something epic going on when a head-shot cat lives more than twenty years in a land of mud slides and wild fire. Better than Chandler in many ways [well, he doesn't constantly recycle his stuff for one, he's put more of his stores on paper for another.] Crais found some of Chandlers charm down one of those lonely streets. I wish him a long productive life and career, purely for my own reading enjoyment.

  2. I could not, simply could not agree more with your assessment. Thank you for posting such a wonderful comment.

    It's funny you should use the word 'epic'. That is exactly what I've found in R.C.'s work.

  3. Must point out one error in your review--Pike's tattoos are not on his biceps (which lie at the front of the upper arm) but are on his deltoids (the muscle at the shoulder). Sorry to be nitpicking but that's an important distinction.

  4. Sorry about that. I'll change it in the review. Thanks. :)


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