THERE ARE VARIOUS versions of trust: the unconditional trust of someone who considers you to be the most important part of their world, the wordless trust between partners who have weathered heaven and hell with each other, the mutual trust forged out of a professional and distant respect, or the trust built through money, favors, and perks. This is the way we interact with one another daily. We forge bonds for multiple reasons and break them (at times for similar reasons). These interpersonal relationships are simple at the beginning, but their maintenance is a complicated and messy process. Such relationships are ignored in most thrillers, and I was glad to see them play a key role in The Promise, the latest novel by Robert Crais.
Most genre authors avoid wading into the murky waters of an ensemble cast. Not Crais. He provides the reader with a constantly shifting perspective in his newest thriller, The Promise, which acts as a sort of “Crais-verse” team-up, with protagonists Elvis Cole, Joe Pike, and Scott James and his dog Maggie. They come together to resolve the disappearance of a chemical engineer and investigate her alleged ties to a potential terrorist plot. There’s plenty of action and explosive moments, and they shine, but Crais also examines the bonds of trust among his characters, never taking for granted just how incredibly complicated relationships can be — professional or personal.
I’m a newcomer to Crais and came in blind and unencumbered by the weight of the canon of past books. Surprisingly, I was not only comfortable slipping right into Crais’s worlds, but I became quickly invested. As a reader, it can be incredibly intimidating to jump into a series well into its life, triply so when the book features protagonists from several series, but Crais managed to pull me in and keep me focused on what needed to be focused on. In the relationship between reader and writer, Crais was quick to earn my trust — something hard-earned.
An entirely different kind of trust is at work in the relationship I found to be the novel’s most fascinating: that between Scott James and his K9 partner Maggie. It’s a challenge to write from multiple perspectives, and to tackle a whole different way of seeing the world — in this case, the point of view of a dog — is even more so. Maggie provides a unique view into the world of The Promise and the story itself — a stripped down narrative that hinges entirely on the trust and loyalty she has to her “pack”:
Her huge ears swiveled and tipped, seeking their enemy. She sniffed frantically, searching the air, but found only Scott’s fear.
His fear was enough.
Scott was hers.
Maggie growled, low and deep in her massive chest, a primal warning to whatever might hear.
This pack was hers.
These moments are wonderfully honest and capture a tone that we rarely see in most novels not written by Jack London. The raw emotion serves as a fantastic and refreshing change of pace from the procedural elements of the plot. How often does a reader get to experience the narrative of a story from so simple a level, stripped of pretension and analysis?
And that’s not to say that loyalties are merely earned and kept. Trust is a bond easily broken between characters, and The Promise has enough twists and turns to leave the reader wondering if emotional investments in some characters — like Elvis and company — were wise decisions. The plot is woven deftly, with just enough kinks to keep things from getting too procedural. Elvis Cole goes through the motions, at first believing that he has a simple missing persons case, and soon finds out that there is much more to the missing person and the person who hired him. And while, yes, Elvis is the lead protagonist, there is as much focus on Scott James and Maggie. Crais is masterful at the tricky switch between characters from chapter to chapter (especially since Elvis’s sections are in first-person while everyone else’s are presented in third).
Elvis accomplishes his goals with assistance from the other protagonists of the novel, and the precarious trust between characters is perhaps best explained by Maggie’s pack mentality. Each member of this crew serves a function and is trusted to do it right, their efforts meant for the greater good of all. For Elvis the incentive is a paycheck and some closure; for Scott James, his job; for Jon Stone, justice; and for Maggie, her sense of belonging and an escape from the trauma she experienced as a military dog overseas (an especially gripping flashback provides context to her intense attachment to Scott).
There’s also nuance to the missing person in the novel, Amy Breslyn. Breslyn provides an interesting answer to the question of what a person would do when everything they’d ever believed in was shattered. Delving further into the story would only ruin the mystery, but it’s safe to say that Breslyn’s part in The Promise is fulfilling for the reader, unpredictable, and emotional. Weare left distrusting her associates and even her, as Elvis and company begin unraveling the secrets left in her wake.
Throughout The Promise, we’re provided with a tight and well-written narrative. Crais is a master at building suspense and at building a satisfying mystery. The themes of trust and loyalty make the book an excellent entry to Crais’s characters, and an excellent novel. Crais has made a fan of me, and I’m fully invested in jumping back and exploring the rest of his work. I trust I won’t regret it.