If the purpose of these Going Home posts is to examine the crime fiction which got me started in the genre before the Golden Age became my particular obsession — and it is — then it’s frankly incredible that it’s taken me this long to get round to Robert Crais.
And so, I give you…
The Monkey’s Raincoat (1987) by Robert Crais
How I encountered this book
The same ten-book megapack that introduced me to Michael Connelly contained Indigo Slam (1997), the seventh book in Robert Crais’ series featuring private detective Elvis Cole and his partner, Joe Pike. I found the character pretty difficult to dislike, and before too long was impatiently snapping up Crais’ previous books while awaiting news of any new titles that might be coming from his pen.
There was a period from about 2000 to 2005 where the only books that really mattered to me were the ones being written by Robert Crais and John Connolly — everything else was just filling time, background to the main event of a new hardcover from those minds. Hell, I don’t think I’ve since experienced anticipation for a new title like I did for Crais’ The Last Detective (2003), which brought back Cole and Pike after a four-year absence, and I remember sitting a tearing through that book in no time at all when it eventually landed (and, yes, it still bothers me that there’s a continuity-breaking error in there…). So a chance to go back to the beginning of the series, which was actually the fourth book by Crais I read, has been on the card for quite some time.
What’s it about?
I appreciate now that the brilliance of Crais’ creation was in finding a new wrinkle on the private eye novel, a subgenre that has gone through more than a few iterations in its time. I’m no fan of Raymond Chandler’s prose or opinions, but I won’t deny the genius of the cynicism of Philip Marlowe in his debut The Big Sleep (1939), and I still find it interesting that Leigh Brackett-written, Robert Altman-directed movie of The Long Goodbye (1973), based on the sixth Marlowe novel, overhauled the character in the same year that Robert B. Parker reinvented the modern private eye novel with The Godwulf Manuscript (1973), the first in his long-running Spenser series. Spenser was almost a parody of the private eye of lore — not just a cynical badass who could bench-press 250lbs, but also a renaissance man who was into cooking and wood-carving — but wrestled the genre in a new, more fun and socially relatable direction that paved the way for swathes of the modern American crime fiction that followed (as Harlan Coben said upon Parker’s death, “90% of us who write wisecracking detectives admit he was a major influence. The other ten percent lie about it.”).
Upon first glimpse, Crais’ novels featuring the glib, wisecracking Los Angeles private detective Elvis Cole and his laconic, hyper-violent partner Joe Pike seem like little more than Spenser-lite: Elvis is into his food, his yoga, his pop culture references, and doesn’t mind getting a client’s back up, and Pike is the man who can be called in to deal with anything that plot machinations or good taste requires Cole keep his hands off, just as Spenser had the ex-boxer Hawk to help him. Sure, Cole has the capacity for violence, and is devastatingly effective when called into action — he’s hardly in the Donald Lam school of ineptness when it comes to fist fights — but for the most part he’s a happy-go-lucky guy who glides through books on a mixture of tortured soul insights and unfiltered snark:
Janet Simon reached a cigarette out of a little blue purse, tamped it, fired up, and pulled enough smoke into her chest to fill the Goodyear blimp.
Where Crais excelled, and this is why my initially coming into the series at a later point matters, was in making Cole and Pike psychologically human and believable, exploring their fears and flaws as the series developed, and eventually blowing the lid of his own lore with the game-changing L.A. Requiem (1999) which necessitated that four-year break I mentioned above while the dust settled and Crais wrote a couple of standalones (one of which, Hostage (2001), became the lamentable Bruce Willis movie of the same name) before returning to the series and adding a new depth with each instalment. We confronted Elvis’ past in the Vietnam war, his fears surrounding his abandonment as a young boy by his father, his uncertainty about his role as an investigator…for a while, there was so much depth to be found in these men and their relationship, and Crais mined it expertly.
In recent times, Crais has gone off the boil for me — if you can spot how the plot of The Wanted (2017) and A Dangerous Man (2019) are different in any but cosmetic matters, please send details on a postcard, and the forthcoming Racing the Light (2022) already sounds like a retread of those two books — even if he does write some of the finest single-sentence prose in the business. So a chance to go back to the very beginning, when his prose might not be a slick but his ideas must have surely been teeming, given the time he put in writing for shows like Hill Street Blues, Cagney & Lacey, Quincy, and Miami Vice was to be seized upon. I reread some Crais every couple of years and always find something to enjoy (he has created some wonderful bad guys in his time, it must be said), not least the dynamic between Cole and Pike which keeps me reading even in his decline. Which brings us to The Monkey’s Raincoat (1987), debut of Crais, and Cole and Pike, and which I’ve not read in about 20 years.
In true private eye fashion, things start out simple and then escalate: Ellen Lang’s husband Mort collected their 9 year-old son Perry from school four days previously and neither of them have been seen since, so the somewhat brow-beaten Ellen is brought along by her friend Janet Simon to consult Cole and see if he can track them down.
“I won’t have the police after my husband. I won’t do that to him. I don’t want the police here. I don’t want ABPs. I don’t want Mort in any trouble.”
“APB,” I said. “All Points Bulletin. That went out with Al Capone.”
“I don’t want that, either.”
My head throbbed.
Almost immediately, the Lang home is subjected to a violent search, and it begins to become clear that Mort has gotten in with — duhn, duhn, duuuuuuhn — some Very Bad People Indeed. As the death toll mounts and the police begin to circle the case, with Cole and Pike enjoying wildly contrasting relationships with the officers of the LAPD, it becomes a question of what can be salvaged and who will be alive when all is said and done…but then what else would you expect?
Any seeds of detection?
Now, look, it’s taken me a long time to get into this for two reasons. Firstly, because I loved Crais at his peak and it’s just fun to reflect on the journey the guy has taken me on down the years. I met him twice, and he’s a lovely guy who had a huge impact on the books I read and the joy I took in this genre. And secondly because, man, is this book not good. It pains me to say it, but The Monkey’s Raincoat is dull, dull, dull, dull, and I’m reasonably sure I appreciated that on a subconscious level down the years or else I would have likely reread it before now, right? The series would go on to great things, but as beginnings go this is about an inauspicious as it gets.
If you cut out descriptions of Cole driving around L.A., descriptions of architecture, descriptions of food, and conversations in which Cole butts heads with the police over their handling of Ellen Lang’s situation, this would be about 30 pages long. And those 30 pages would contain no mystery, no intrigue, and very little in the way of surprise. We learn why the Lang house was searched very quickly, a MacGuffin dropped straight out of Central Casting, and…that remains the driving focus of the plot for the rest of the book. Some people want it, Cole asks around, immediately finds who has it, gets it, the police interfere, and Cole and Pike storm the bad guys’ lair and shoot everyone. The plot isn’t especially clever, the developments feel hoary even for 1987, and at no point does anything that happened earlier really have any impact on what happens in the closing stages.
So, no, not a single seed of detection is to be found here, not even in the careful plot construction that would later become such a feature of Crais’ novels. This is, to say the least, a real disappointment.
Can you go home?
From his TV work and from the references scattered throughout — Mike Hammer, The Postman Always Ring Twice (1946), that Chandler line about mean streets, etc. — we know that Crais is no ingenue where the genre is concerned, but none of his ideas really comes together. Cole, it must be said, is captured here with the sort of clarity that sees him almost unchanged throughout the series, his heart as big as ever and his very human reactions to stressful situations like shooting men dead pleasingly not overplayed, but most of what remains is an unfocussed trudge through a slow plot whose key points were tarnished and uninteresting years before (Hollywood Excess! Drugs! Murder!) and to which he has nothing to add. Even Cole’s relationship with Pike doesn’t feel right, with Joe saying more on his first appearance here than he does in the last three books to feature him combined.
However, I say most of what remains, because one aspect is magnificent: the characterisation of Ellen Lang. Crais has written before about how the character was inspired by his own mother, and he charts her development from a meek. passive presence in a life she doesn’t know how to control…
“Now, about my fee.”
“Yes, of course.”
“Two thousand, exclusive of expenses.”
I looked at her. She looked at me. Nobody moved. After twenty or thirty years I said, “Well?”
…to something more like a functional, capable mother who will use the events she lives through to take a more active role in her existence going forwards. In a book where the greatest successes are the minor characters — Lou Poitras and Eddie Ditko would go on to become series regulars and favourites — it’s fitting that perhaps its greatest strength is someone taking control and beginning to focus the hand they’ve been dealt in order to improve on what they started out with. Crais would learn very quickly indeed, and the series would begin to bear fruit from second title Stalking the Angel (1989), and so in a certain way this being disappointing isn’t a disappointment. Sure, I’d love to have loved it, but it’s not going to take anything away from the joy Crais has given me down the years, and I’m pleased to think that even he saw the flaws in this and responded quickly.
So, while my changing tastes found this less than exemplary this time around, I can’t deny the very good foundation laid here. Not the homecoming I would have hoped for, but that’s okay. We leave for a reason, and sometimes being reminded that you’ve moved on isn’t entirely a bad thing.
Going Home on The Invisible Event: