The Emotional Harpoons
By Scott TimbergApril 24, 2018
Perhaps Crais’s best quality is his ability to suit the page-turning demands of the mass-market, best-selling crime thriller with the more literary, character-based emphasis of his hero Ross Macdonald. The books move, but they are also richly detailed, with well-researched glimpses into contemporary Los Angeles. A native of Louisiana, Crais came to town in the ’70s to break into television, writing for Hill Street Blues, Cagney & Lacey, and Miami Vice. His award-winning debut, Monkey’s Raincoat, came out in 1987.
I interviewed Crais over brunch at a cafe in West Hollywood, where he wrote much of the novel.
SCOTT TIMBERG: Okay, so 21 books, most of them with Elvis. So could you give us a sense of, over the 30 years, how this character has changed? Has he changed at all, or has he been pretty steady in his values and instincts?
ROBERT CRAIS: Well, over the course of the series, the books are about his life, his evolution — of course he’s changed, I’ve changed. I’m not the same person I was when I wrote my first book in the mid-’80s in a cabin in Lake Arrowhead. So as I’ve changed, the character evolves. I don’t want him to be steady-state, you know, like episode 27 of [’60s–’70s detective show] Mannix or whatever it is, you know — unchanging?
Elvis has a life, and that life has impact — in fact, I think the core of the current novel, The Wanted, is that he’s at a place in his life where he’s feeling — it is about his need, a recognized need he has or desire he has for family. This book came to me — they all come to me usually with an image, like a flash image that has no beginning or ending. And this book came to me — I saw a glimpse, Elvis Cole in his house, he has this A-frame in the Hollywood Hills, it’s nighttime, I know it’s dark, there’s a lot of shadows.
And he’s alone with his cat, with his refrigerator full of beer …
And that’s it! I didn’t even get to the part with the beer yet — all I had was, here he is, he’s in his house with the cat, and the line that came to me — Elvis says, “I don’t have kids, I have a cat.” And he was so melancholy in this moment, that for me, that’s what it’s all about: the emotional harpoons. And that’s all I had. I didn’t have the other characters, I didn’t have the story, none of that. But I knew, that’s what this book is about.
Right, so you built the plot, the crime, the other characters around that moment. And that drove everything else.
That drove everything else, that’s the nuclear core of the rest of the book. So then I began thinking about Elvis’s desire for family. You know, because he actually is one of those rare males who wants to be married, he would like to have a kid. He came close that one time. So you begin to develop things, you know — and it’s almost like global thinking, you know? There’s no linear order to this thinking. Pretty soon there’s a kid, he ends up being a 17-year-old teenage boy and then there’s the single mother; and of course she’s got to be single because what Elvis needs is this facade of a family. He’s the male, there’s an adult woman who’s the female mother.
In distress, right?
In distress, of course. And little by little over time, the story unfolds.
Right, so Elvis, who started out as kind of — there’s probably a better word for this — I think in the early Elvis books, he’s a little bit goofy. He’s very young, he wears Hawaiian shirts. We see him mature, and become more yearning —
Well he still wears Hawaiian shirts …
But he becomes more yearning and concerned for the big picture as he gets older, the way most people do.
So you’ve got the same character, most of these books — maybe all of them — take place in the same city. So how do you keep from repeating yourself, and how do you keep each book alive for you? You know, we’ve got the same guy, the same place, there’s always a crime of some kind that needs to be solved. How do you keep it fresh and what was — besides the search for family you mentioned — what’s the fresh element in The Wanted?
Well, the fresh element for me is the focus that I bring to Elvis Cole’s desire. And in fact I give him — in this book he has a voice to that. He literally states — in those moments between Elvis Cole and the boy’s mother, he actually gives voice to us about his feeling of loss, feeling of emptiness that he doesn’t have someone in his life to love. He isn’t drab or grim about it, you know, humor is a good part of Elvis Cole’s personality.
Right, and the appeal of your novels I think —
Sure. And I think, you know he ends up making Ozzie and Harriet jokes — because of events that happened, the mother has to come and she has to leave her house, because bad guys are after them. So she’s taking up residence in Nova Scotia, now they have this uncomfortable situation where they’re living together, and she falls into that a lot more easily than Elvis Cole does, so humor ensues.
But the fact of his commitment to this women — the fact of his all-in desire to not just solve the crime, it’s the fact that he wants, he wants to save this man in such a way that he is able to provide a father’s guidance to help this kid turn his life around, and grow up to be a man worth growing up to be. So those are the points of underlying energies that are at work in the book. After that, it’s — you know, all the characters that I create, if they’re not interesting to me they’re not going to be interesting to anyone else. You get to create guys like Harvey and Stemms.
Right: You have some highly developed bad guys with strong personalities. Tell us a little about them. Do you feel like you’re getting deeper into the villains than you have in previous books with these guys?
Yeah, I think so, and look — one-dimensional villains are easy to create, but they are not interesting to me. You want to create a screaming maniac with a knife, you can do that while you gargle — it’s not a test. I don’t like that. I am my audience, and I want to read characters who are surprising, and interesting, and would say the unexpected. So when I created Harvey and Stemms, who are not the über-bad guys here, the über-villains, but they are the primary menaces for Elvis Cole, I created two guys who I would think are … Let me put it to you this way — every day I got to sit down and write a Harvey and Stemms scene, I didn’t want it to end. Because their inventiveness was endlessly amusing to me. When they made me laugh, they made me cringe, they scared the shit out of me, that’s — after 21 books you know, if I’m devoting a year of my life to writing a novel, if I’m sitting there, you know what it’s like. You sit there at the typewriter, it’s mostly unpleasant. If there’s not something that you can invest in, that’s worth doing for me, then I don’t want to do it. I’d rather go fishing. Those guys have me entertained — those moments, it’s what keeps me motivated, keeps me fresh.
Because when I’m doing it, you know what I’m thinking? This is fun. This is great. This is what I want to read if I were reading a book.
Right. And that duo seems to come out of a tradition of cinematic, maybe bad guy duos, or cinematic antiheroes, or literary antiheroes. Do you have any antecedents in mind for those two either in theater, movies, literature?
Not for them. You know, I have a partnership. Elvis Cole’s not a lone entity. Elvis has a partner named Joe Pike.
So I have this duality of Elvis and Joe. When I created Harvey and Stemms, I actually wanted to do a flip on — you know, Elvis and Joe a pair, Harvey and Stemms a pair.
They’re like the antimatter Joe and Elvis.
Exactly, the bizzaro-world Elvis and Joe. That’s Harvey and Stemms. And that is the purpose of it, that it was going to be a two-on-two situation.
Right, it becomes a fair fight, with two criminals versus two detectives. Yeah, well that makes sense. So Joe Pike, who you mentioned, is a very reliable, sort of laconic ex-marine.
A force of nature.
Yeah, and an important part of this book. What does having a partnership, as opposed to a standard Sam Spade, Lew Archer kind of hero, allow you to do as a novelist that you wouldn’t if it was just a lone hero, a lone wolf?
To delve deeper into the identities of the characters. At least that’s the approach I’ve always taken. I like buddy pictures. I always responded to a duo. As an artist what appeals to me about them is that I can use these two characters to dig deeper into each other’s — I can use their partnership, friendship, love for each other to reveal more about them as characters, them as human beings. That’s the appeal to me. Elvis Cole can say things to Joe Pike that he would not realistically say to anyone else. And therefore I don’t need him to be internalized the way he would otherwise be. Ditto Joe Pike — you know, Joe doesn’t have a lot to say anyways. He’s not a talker. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] Right, a man of action, few words.
Yeah, he’s very internalized. Still waters, and all that stuff. So I enjoy the interplay. Because no matter what’s happened in the course of the story, if Elvis and Joe are together, I know I have something that’s going to be interesting and fun for me to do. Because they bring out great stuff in each other.
One major part of all your novels, and it’s true of this one, there’s a lot of detail. Every street and neighborhood — physical detail, but also social detail: what kinds of people live in places, down to what the streets look like.
L.A.’s a character.
Yeah, L.A.’s an important character in all your books. You live here, you’ve lived here for a long time, but this city changes so quickly. Do you feel pressure to keep up with the different neighborhoods, and all the different currents that are always washing across Los Angeles?
It’s not a pressure I feel. One of the joys for me of living here is being here. You know, I love to explore the city. I’m not an idiot, I hate the traffic. But I love — I mean I would do this …
You would just do it for fun, right?
I would do it for fun, I love it. I love Los Angeles. Call me irresponsible, but I love Los Angeles. I love the diversity. I love everything that diversity brings to us. You know all the different — I’m a foodie — I love all of the types of food we eat. I love all the different areas and the architectures of L.A. I drive around for fun, I take pictures of random houses, I take pictures of trees and I don’t even know what the trees are. You know, the architecture, places. I have this huge photo file, because all of that pours into the books. Even if I don’t write about it, the feeling it invokes in me is part of the fabric that imbues the background of the scenes. Here in this place, anything can happen — and I’m not talking about in my books, I’m talking about in the world, just living here in the city. I mean anything can happen. And that kind of excitement and energy is perfect for what I like, perfect for me as a human being.
It’s sort of an open-ended landscape, socially, and culturally, and physically, and in every way. There are so many possibilities.
Anything can happen. You can turn onto any street, and the possibilities are endless. It doesn’t have to be different. You know, you turn left on that street and you can find some hide-bound enclave that is the same as it’s always been. Turn right on that same street, and then around the corner, and you’ve got something so bizarre that no one’s ever even imagined it. That’s Los Angeles.
Maybe this is true of a lot of writers, but would you be a very different writer if you weren’t based in and writing about Los Angeles?
Do you follow detective fiction in other cities, in other countries — have a sense of places that are particularly rich? I mean in some ways it all started here in San Francisco and in Los Angeles, but there’s now a noir collection set in Nairobi, and set in every country in Latin America, and in Warsaw.
I read what I enjoy. I don’t read nearly as much detective fiction or any kind of fiction as I used to. That’s just a time thing. The bulk of my reading is nonfiction. I also read eclectically. I don’t limit my reading to crime fiction. I read diversely. But there are certain writers whose work I enjoy, that just happens to be set in other places. I don’t read those particular writers because their work is set somewhere, though I imagine that’s an element. There’s something about voices, something about their characters I enjoy. That’s what I look for. I read for the same reason that everybody reads. I read because I enjoy something.
So what’s your nonfiction reading like?
Well that’s totally diverse.
You read a lot of history, or biography, or…?
Well it depends, a lot of it has to do with research. So on any particular project, depending upon the research that’s going to happen, that’ll dictate whether I’m reading manuals for how the LAPD K-9 platoon conducts its business and tends to its dogs, or night-vision optics that special services use a lot. For pleasure, my nonfiction reading right now tends to be about mountain climbing in the Sierra Nevadas, a capella competitions. [Both laugh.] I mean, you never know what I’m going to be reading.
I want to talk about a theme that’s been part of American politics for the last few years. It’s probably in all of your books to some extent, but I feel it more in this novel, is what we’ve come to call the one percent and the very rich, which is a big part of the landscape in L.A. How do the very, very rich factor in your novels? They’ve always been a major part of detective fiction, so what has their role been and has it changed, perhaps since the days when Sam Spade would show up in a wealthy person’s house?
I think if anything in modern detective fiction, the very rich in the main aren’t portrayed as one-note, as one-dimensionally as they used to be, I think for a lot of reasons. Writers and readers both, I think, are looking for fiction that’s more complex, more nuanced, with characters that are more interesting. And interesting means complex, and multidimensional.
Having said that, the über-rich can be portrayed as the role requires — meaning, either with protagonistic aspects, i.e., the good guys, or as villains. I don’t want to get too detailed as to how the rich people are portrayed in this book, because we’d give away the ending, or part of the ending. But in the main, in The Wanted obviously I’m dealing with a burglary ring, and burglary rings, at least the more interesting burglary rings, tend to burglarize the homes of wealthy people.
Right, rich people have a lot of stuff, so they’re crucial to crime fiction. People want their stuff, so they tend to show up in books like this.
Right, what rich people bring to that particular mix that’s interesting is that the very wealthy tend to have city government connections. And today, as has always been the case, no matter the city they live in, the people who are connected tend to have more weight to throw around, and get more attention.
And they can drive an investigation, or the engine of a novel like yours.
They have phones to pick up, they can pick up the telephones. So I use that as a factor in the book — a burden for the police officers, who are the blue-collar workers who have to get the job done. It becomes a weight on their back. And also as an impediment to Elvis Cole, who’s working on the outside. Because that’s what he is; he’s not part of the system.
Right, he’s pretty much always on the outside, the way Marlowe is.
I get asked a lot, “Why did you make Elvis Cole a private investigator, as opposed to any of the other things he could have been?” Well, by being a private investigator he is automatically on the outside, and that outsider identity is appealing for me. I like it that he’s on the outside. I like that he’s an outsider, and he’s not part of this big machine of city government. I just find that more appealing — I won’t say more heroic, because I don’t think it is. But I like the fact that he’s this alone guy, this freelance person. And basically it’s him against the world. No matter which direction Elvis Cole turns in, he’s on his own. And the audience in me, the reader in me, the fan in me — that character appeals to me. That’s why I chose to write it as this, because I like it.
So speaking of private investigators, somebody you and I have talked about over the years is Ross Macdonald’s detective Lew Archer. Tell us a little about what you respond to in Macdonald’s work and what sort of affinities you feel with what he does. He set most of his books in Southern or Central California, so there’s an obvious parallel, but what are the other things you feel like you’re connecting with in your own work?
Well it’s interesting, because there’s the “big three” in American detective fiction. And the “big three” were the original big three, that means it was Ross Macdonald, Raymond Chandler, and Dashiell Hammett. So, for me, Dashiell Hammett had higher energy, an insider’s view of best-selling detective fiction. Chandler was the emotional poet of Los Angeles, whose character just embodied world-weary goodness and ability.
And then there’s Ross Macdonald and Lew Archer. And what drew me there is that he had a sort of ironical maturity that the other two detectives — and it was different from Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, and I think that was reflective of who Ross Macdonald was as a person and as a writer. There was a tad bit more of an intellectual patina around him and his work, where you could see Macdonald the intellectual thinking through all the adventures that he set for Lew Archer. And the way that Lew Archer reacted to the people around him and observed the world around him, whether it’s cheesy apartments and two-story walk-ups in Santa Monica or the wealthier people who Lew Archer had to deal with.
You never got the feeling that Lew Archer was a street gun. Phil Marlowe could have been, the war veteran, the knight errant. There was an element to Phil Marlowe that was just — you know the ex-cop, the ex-deputy sheriff. He could be a street monster when he chose to be. Hammett’s Sam Spade, no doubt about it, could be. Lew Archer, to me, was a bit more genteel than that. Yes he could mix it up, but that wasn’t his true nature.
Yeah, he was a detective, but he was almost a great listener more than anything. He was almost a psychotherapist or something, a Freudian therapist.
Oh, there was a heavy element of psychology in the noir-era books. And I think Ross Macdonald enjoyed that aspect. That gets to the intellectual patina.
He was an educated guy — studied with Auden I think, for a while.
Ross Macdonald was an educated, bright, intellectual man, and it showed in the character. So while reading his books was not as emotional an experience for me as reading the Raymond Chandler books, there’s an aspect to that that I like a lot, and that when I first discovered Ross Macdonald and was reading that I enjoyed quite a bit and had an appreciation for. And I think the Eudora Welty and the others, and the reason Ross Macdonald got as much attention as he has was the intellect that he brought to it — people appreciate it.
What do you think you’re doing that comes from him. Do you have a sense of it?
I’m not sure, only because of the three, I discovered Chandler first, Hammett second, and I came to Ross Macdonald last. Now, at the same time I was a teenager, so I’m reading a lot of other crap, but those are the three favorites. But I’m reading all the people who were writing at the time, so it all went into the cauldron, so to speak. So I don’t know that there’s a specific influence from each — I think there’s probably a more significant influence from Chandler’s notion of the knight, the nobility of the knight errant, the loner of the knight, but all of it sort of got thrown into the mix.
I didn’t realize you were exposed so early. When an influence hits you so early it’s hard to extricate yourself from it. It’s like a parent or a big brother.
I’ll tell you a cool thing. At the kickoff just three days ago, I was on Good Day LA and somebody there in the staff really did their homework, because my first book of detective fiction — when I was 15 years old, in a secondhand bookstore in Baton Rouge, it was called Book Exchange — it’s no longer in business — I found a 20th-hand copy of [Chandler’s] The Little Sister. And the only reason I bought it was there was a really hot chick on the cover. It cost 17 cents. Someone on the Good Day LA staff found that book — the exact same edition of that book, and they used it as a graphic. And that’s the one, man.
Yeah, I think a number of us picked up those books because of the alluring covers. So I want to conclude with a kind of impossible question. You already said, like most writers, you read eclectically, inside and outside your own field. But you’ve been a detective writer now for three decades and I expect you’re part of various conventions. Does the field seem healthy to you? Does crime fiction feel like it’s in a period of enrichment? Does it feel like it’s repeating itself? Do you have a sense of where the genre is now compared to where it was 30, 35 years ago when you started?
I think it’s growing and it’s a super positive thing for a variety of reasons. I think it’s more diverse and it’s broader than it’s ever been. In large part because of the internet, and because of the alternative forms of publishing that exist now. I think we’re seeing more voices from more diverse cultures and more diverse experience bases than ever. I don’t think those things are necessarily yet reflected in The New York Times best seller list, but they’re there. I was just at Noireland, which was the international crime conference in Belfast, Ireland.
There are some good writers in Belfast, too.
Terrific, John Connolly is there. There’s terrific noir writers, Scotland — Denise Mina is one of them.
Yeah, he wasn’t here at this particular festival, which is unfortunate because I wanted to meet him.
But there were representatives from Sweden and France. And that’s the international level, but here in the United States — and there’s more women writing crime fiction than ever before, more women writing it successfully than ever before — diverse voices. I think all that’s great. Crime fiction in and of itself, if you just look purely at numbers, it’s the most successful of the categories — it sells huge numbers of books, people like crime fiction.
Every bookstore you go into will have a crime or a detective section, and they won’t have a Western section the way they would have 50 years ago, and they might have a science fiction section and they might not, but they will have a decent crime and detective shelf.
Yeah, it’s there, and it’s popular for a variety of reasons. But I think today, all publishing — and I don’t care what category you’re talking about, whether it’s all the way from literary fiction, through science fiction, crime, fantasy, romance, whatever, you name it — is a cyclical beast. There are waves, it’s like a general sine wave roll. Things come, things go, things heat up, and things go away depending on anything — current events, popular movies at the time. Things have impacts. But, overall, people read. And people read, in the main, some form of crime fiction — whether it’s thrillers, suspense novels, detective novels, cozy mysteries, you name it. It’s all on the up. And I think the many and diverse voices that are finding a foothold across all the publishing platforms can only be good for the genre. The more the merrier.
Scott Timberg is the editor of The Misread City: New Literary Los Angeles and author of Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class.
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