OFFICER SCOTT JAMES is listening to Dominick Leland, who has 32 years on the job as a K-9 handler, as he explains what a dog leash is:
This isn’t steel and nylon. It’s a nerve. You clip one end to you, you clip the other to this animal, it ain’t for dragging him down the street. You feel him through this nerve, and he feels you, and what flows through here flows both ways — anxiety, fear, discipline, approval — right through this nerve without you and your dog ever even having to look at each other, without you ever having to say a word [...] I watched you for eight weeks, and you did everything I asked you to do, but I never saw anything flow through your leash.
Officer James, the hero of Suspect, Robert Crais’s latest novel, was a promising LAPD cop slated for bigger things whose career seems to have ended the same night his life almost did. He and his female partner were ambushed by gunmen on a lonely Los Angeles street. He survived. She didn’t.
His physical wounds have been healing, but his emotional pain has only intensified. Suffering the classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, not to mention crushing survivor guilt, Scott is deemed unfit for duty. It’s only with the aid of some sympathetic higher-ups that he’s sent for training in the department’s K-9 corps, and, soon enough, given a new female partner: a black-and-tan German Shepherd named Maggie.
Like Scott, Maggie herself is suffering psychologically. A former bomb-sniffing dog in Afghanistan, she witnessed the violent death of her beloved handler, Pete. Maggie’s so lost, angry, and disoriented that, soon after arriving at the LAPD dog-training facility, even veteran handler Leland feels she can’t hack the specialized training required to be a competent K-9 recruit.
So begins the tale of an unlikely, beautifully realized partnership between man and dog. Though for fans of Crais’s well-known crime-fighting duo Elvis Cole and Joe Pike, the teaming of Scott James and Maggie will seem like quite a departure.
And yet, in another way, it isn’t. Over the past 20 years, Crais’s best-selling books have established him as one of the most important and reliable L.A. writers in the genre. Hardly surprising, since he lists among his literary influences the Olympian gods of the City of Angels, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. But his success isn’t due merely to his mastery of the genre’s twists, noir-ish characters and suspense. Since his first award-winning Elvis Cole novel, The Monkey’s Raincoat, to the present, Crais’s recurring themes have been the values of honesty and loyalty. Extolling, through the popular vehicle of crime fiction, Faulkner’s “eternal verities,” which have admittedly taken a beating in recent decades in the culture at large.
Yet, even more than these perennial tropes of the “loner” private eye’s world view, Crais has explored — through the relationship between Cole and Pike — the nature of friendship, and, in a number of his later novels, redemption. As he himself once stated, “Thematically, again and again my books are about people who are trying to be better than they have been.”
Which is why, though Suspect lacks some of Crais’s usual page-turning action and suspense, it is less a departure than a variation on these same themes. It becomes clear quite early on that the ostensible story, involving the search for the men who ambushed Scott and his late partner, is not the main concern of the novel — nor, one feels, of the novelist. Instead, Crais offers a heartfelt depiction of a man and a dog slowly, unwittingly healing each other, bringing each other back from potentially crippling alienation and despair.
Not that Scott is initially inclined to see it this way. Early on, when someone asks him about having a K-9 partner, he claims to really like it. “They do what you say, don’t talk back, and it’s only a dog.”
Needless to say, Scott will come to feel quite differently about Maggie. As she will to him. In fact, one of the riskier things Crais does is occasionally write from Maggie’s point-of-view. Attempting something that could easily come across as maudlin and manipulative, Crais succeeds in giving us a window into the thought processes of a sensitive, well-trained dog. Like Scott, we soon — what the hell, I might as well say it — we soon fall in love with Maggie.
How could we not? She’s brave, resourceful, empathic, and loyal. No one knows this about dogs as clearly as Dominick Leland, to whom I’ll give the final word on the subject:
They are living, feeling, warm-blooded creatures of God, and they will love you with all their hearts. They will love you when your wives and husbands sneak behind your backs. They will love you when your ungrateful misbegotten children piss on your graves! They will see and witness your greatest shame, and will not judge you! These dogs will be the truest and best partners you can ever hope to have, and they will give their lives for you [...] Goddamnit to hell, the ten best men I know aren’t worth the worst dog here.
Not that I don’t have a few quibbles with the novel. Other than Scott and Maggie, most of the supporting characters are a bit under-developed. Surprisingly, this includes Leland, who’s sole expression appears to be “scowling.” I also have a problem with Scott’s therapist, Charles Goodman. Apparently inserted into the novel sometime in the 1970’s by Central Casting, he’s described as “an overweight man in his forties with a pointy beard, a ponytail, sandals, and toenail fungus.” How did this guy escape from Esalen?
But, as I say, these are mere quibbles. Suspect is a bracing, emotionally satisfying novel that introduces us to one of the most striking partnerships in crime fiction. I can only hope that Scott James and Maggie team up again soon.