Soft-Voiced Big Men: Robert Crais’s “The Sentry”

By Megan AbbottApril 28, 2011

The Sentry by Robert Crais

LATE IN RAYMOND CHANDLER’S Farewell, My Lovely, Philip Marlowe, the inceptive knight-errant detective, receives help from a mysterious stranger. A "big redheaded roughneck" with "violet eyes, like a lovely girl," Red Norgaard suddenly emerges out of nowhere, provides critical assistance and muscle, then just as quickly disappears — but not before Marlowe reveals more to him about his own private demons than to any other character in the series. "I told him a great deal more than I intended to," Marlowe admits. "It must have been his eyes."

In the end, Marlowe declines Red's offer of continued help, saying, "Either I do it alone or I don't do it." Red replies, "Sometimes a guy has to." The detective's isolation is understood, inviolate.

This extended, intensely emotional episode is unlike any other in the Marlowe novels. Marlowe and Red's fleeting intimacy provides a revealing background for the relationship between Robert Crais's PI, Elvis Cole, and his sometime partner, Joe Pike. The hardboiled novel has slowly moved away from the isolated hero toward the heroic duo, who rely on each other — and, in many ways, each other alone — for comradeship and understanding.

This shift takes on great heft in The Sentry, the third Crais novel to place Joe Pike, formerly the fearsome sidekick to the wry, charming Cole, at the center. After breaking up the gang shakedown of a small family restaurant, Pike tries to help its proprietors — a man and his niece, both Katrina refugees — escape retaliation. When the pair disappears, Pike calls upon Cole's help, and Crais unfurls all the classic hardboiled tropes — false friends, false identities, and a woman as damaged and mysteries as one of Ross Macdonald's haunted beauties.

Cole, like the classic detective of yore, is a man with a code of honor too strong to permit him to work for the law or to break it, unless he has no other choice. Pike is more shadowy a figure, a former marine and sometime mercenary, his body marking him as an outlier, red arrows striping his arms. He occupies the borderland between a conventional society riddled by corruption and an underbelly poisoned by greed and senseless violence. Cole and Pike are thus part of a long tradition in crime fiction: the hero-and-lethal sidekick pair, e.g., Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins and Mouse, or Robert B. Parker's Spenser and Hawk. But Crais brings greater depth than most to this traditional relationship. Cole and Pike are still isolated individuals, but their isolation is shared. And the larger world Crais offers extends beyond the classic hardboiled detective's closed consciousness.

In The Sentry, we see Cole and Pike merging. It seems less that one has moved closer to the other's pole than that the two are building a new order of their own, together. The process is painful and filled with countless perilous choices. At this point in the series, the two men have the wordless intimacy of longtime lovers unburdened by domestic tedium. They soothe and are soothed by each other in ways Philip Marlowe longs for, nearly touches — with Red in Farewell, My Lovely, and with Terry Lennox in The Long Goodbye, who betrays him, a true homme fatal — far crueler than any femme fatale because, as a man, he has no natural inclination to treachery. In Pike and Cole's scenes together, everything feels close, tensely held, almost unbearably charged; on every page, the reader senses their shared history, the recognition of how much they rely on each other, and, sometimes, the weight of this recognition. For a long stretch, Cole wrestles with whether to tell Pike information he knows will pain him, and Crais, with delicate hand, makes full use of the tension. We feel Cole's anxiety. We both want him to tell and to never tell. 

In The Sentry, we are made even more aware of the intensity of Cole and Pike's bond, which feels not so much homoerotic (which has long been the claim about Marlowe and Red), as beyond sexual, beyond bodies. Their bond is closer to the realm of genuine platonic intimacy between two men, men for whom intimacy has otherwise seemed fleeting, unavailable, impossible. What would I do without him, Cole's opening dream portends. He wakes at 3 a.m. from a vision of Pike "falling through a terrible red mist," and calls his friend:

"You okay?"
"Yeah. Just a bad feeling is all."
They lapsed into a silence Cole found embarrassing, but it was Pike who spoke first.
"You need me, I'm there."
"It's the wind. The wind is crazy."
"Watch yourself."

This exchange occurs three pages into the book and carries the full freight of their relationship on just a few words, and the space between words.

This is not Chandler's prose tradition, though we certainly see Marlowe in Cole's witticisms, or in some of the passages conjuring Los Angeles's brooding landscape, the air scented with "eucalyptus and wild fennel." And while we may hear thematic echoes of the Hammett of The Glass Key (rather than The Maltese Falcon — Spade, too busy bedding his partner's wife, would have no patience for Cole or Pike), Crais's prose is less adorned, less atmospheric, and distinctly less cynical. Though spare and lean, one would not call it Hemingway-esque. Hemingway, like Chandler, was a far weirder bird, and the Cole-Pike novels have none of Papa's obsessive repetitions and idiosyncratic rhythms. Crais's prose style hews closer to Robert B. Parker than Chandler or Ross Macdonald, but is even more economical. Its spareness gives greater sheen to its occasional flourishes, as when Crais describes twenty-year-olds "necklaced with gang ink," or conveys all the forlornness of a forlorn block by noting a neighbor woman "pruning dusty roses."

At heart, this is conventional stuff, but Crais uses the conventions to maximum effect. He is particularly good with the beats of loneliness, which we see in both Pike and Cole — solitary men living in soundless houses, punctuated only by a shiver of wind, the burble of a fountain. Pike eating dinner while standing up. Cole calling out for his missing cat. Pike lying in bed after a late-night run, wondering what it might be like to have another person's sounds in his silent house.

As with any book that understands and appreciates its own tradition, The Sentry's plot offers the kinds of twists that the genre's regular readers would immediately recognize. Those that do surprise, however, are the crooks and zigzags Crais gives his characters, and not just Cole and Pike. While the trend among thrillers may be to jettison everything that does not propel to the fight-chase-torture-chase-fight-boom trajectory, Crais feels utterly comfortable devoting an exquisite few pages to, say, Cole's tricky interactions with prickly John Chen, a forensic expert who appears throughout the series. Or several pages to Pike and Cole's separate and methodical searches of the same house. In Chandler's The Big Sleep, Marlowe returns, obsessively, to the victim's home multiple times for reasons both clear and unclear, and the same happens here. Both men are trying to figure something out. The house is the soft pulse they keep pressing their fingers to. We see both men watching, thinking. Pike puzzles it through and we follow him, beat by beat: "The signs were here. He just had to read them correctly and in the right order. There were still holes and questions, but he saw it unfolding and liked the way it felt."

These are scenes that could easily have been abbreviated, or not have appeared at all. After all, do we need to understand the personal tragedy that led Pike's friend Arturo to start his street outreach program? Or how Chen feels about putting his job at risk for Pike? Well, we do. With each small detail and digression, the book grows larger. In Crais's dilations, the series itself suddenly feels more expansive, richer, and more human. 

These generous gestures toward smaller characters and moments mark Crais's clearest departure from the "lone PI" tradition. The hardboiled novel long chronicled an individual man's mostly failed attempts to make a real difference, and we love the hero for the vainness of his efforts. In Chandler, Macdonald, and countless others, most characters the PI encounters are either the dangerous "Other" (the femme fatale, the villain), a red herring, or incidental local color. The past and personal histories mattered only as much as they touched, or threatened, or impeded the hero. There was a power in this. It was the reader and the hero, alone together. A tight circuit. But now the world is bigger, and everything is personal, to everyone. Crais shows us that bigger world.

But at the same time, Crais knows where the heart lies: in the space between Cole and Pike. They form a powerful circuit, and we are its third point. We care more about other characters than we might otherwise, but we always care most about Cole and Pike — which still could never be as much as they care about each other.

The menace at the center of The Sentry is putatively Daniel, a killer for hire. He is a mysterious figure into whose fevered head we enter at key points in the book. As the villain, Daniel never really coheres, never threatens the reader as much as he might. In the end, it doesn't matter. In what might be Crais's firmest nod to the hardboiled tradition, the real danger is the lengths to which these tarnished knights will go in order to rescue hopelessly lost things. Pike and Cole wish to save those beyond saving, hoping that might be a way of saving themselves.


LARB Contributor

Megan Abbott is the Edgar-winning author of seven novels, including Dare Me, The End of Everything, and The Fever. Her stories have appeared in anthologies including Queens Noir and The Best American Mystery Stories. She is also the author of The Street Was Mine, a study of hardboiled fiction and film noir. Her next novel, You Will Know Me, comes out in July 2016.


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