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Not the Usual Suspect

Robert Crais could have taken the easy route and written a safe-bet novel, another Elvis Cole story. Instead, he created something different--and it's headed for the big screen.

May 29, 2000|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Robert Crais swears, "It still always surprises me when I find a real human being who's read one of my books." Never mind that his detective fiction has sold hundreds of thousands of copies. "Deep inside, I'm still 14 years old in Baton Rouge, La."

He adds, "You can't tell me L.A. isn't magic."

Crais, a lean, boyish 46, is sitting before book-filled shelves in the living room of his home high in Sherman Oaks. He's talking about "Demolition Angel," his new thriller just out from Doubleday that doesn't even mention his popular detective, Elvis Cole.

For this book, he created Carol Starkey, a chain-smoking, boozing LAPD detective fighting to get back her job on the bomb squad three years after almost being blown to bits. She is cynical and sarcastic. Edgy and tough-minded and profane. And, somehow, you can't help but like her. She is tough as nails on the outside. On the inside, says Crais, she's falling apart, "two heartbeats away from exploding herself."

A starred Publishers Weekly review described Starkey as "one of the most complex heroines to grace a thriller since Clarice Starling locked eyes with Hannibal Lecter."

"Demolition Angel" was sold to Columbia TriStar before it was even finished and is destined to be a motion picture produced by Laurence Mark ("As Good as It Gets," "Jerry Maguire").

Starkey's creator, who may or may not have a say in casting her, says, "Ashley Judd would be terrific. Sandra Bullock would be terrific."

It's all a long way from there--Baton Rouge--to here, from rejection slips to bestsellerdom.

It was 1976 when Crais, having "hung around for five years" at Louisiana State University studying mechanical engineering, quit school and followed his dream to Los Angeles. Eight months after landing, he sold his first TV script, to "Baretta."

To pay the rent, he "lugged mail crates up three flights of stairs all day long." He also cleaned dog runs.

He had no contacts in show business, knew zilch about scriptwriting. So he'd buy used scripts for $2.50 apiece, study them and actually measure their length. And he watched lots of TV. His second break came when Jack Klugman hired him as story editor on "Quincy, M.E.," a gig that lasted 18 months.

He was beginning to believe in the magic that lures hopefuls to Los Angeles. As he says, "Nobody goes to Bogalusa, La., because they have a dream."

It's certainly not what his parents had in mind for their only child, whom they adopted when he was 5 months old. His father, an Exxon oil refinery worker, hoped his son would be the first in the family to work in Exxon management. Crais' was a family in which "everyone either worked for Exxon or was a police officer, a very blue-collar, working-class family."

But young Crais had other ideas.

"I was the kid in the library. I was the kid who read voraciously, the kid with the Super-8 movie camera making his own movies. As far back as I can remember, I wanted to tell stories."

As a teenager, he discovered the novels of Raymond Chandler and "wanted to see if I could do that. Raymond Chandler was one of the people who turned me on to the crime novel, and to L.A." Later, he devoured the works of Dashiell Hammett and Ross Macdonald.

He Turned to Sci-Fi and Made His First Sale

But as a "baby writer," Crais cut his literary teeth in science fiction. At the time, "there wasn't much of a market for mystery short stories, but a huge marketplace for science fiction." He began submitting short stories to magazines and getting rejections. He was 23 when he made his first sale.

He was destined to be a novelist, he just knew it. He did churn out two novels--"They were the worst. They were the Great American Novel. They were me trying to learn how to write a book," convinced that it was a matter of sticking paper in the typewriter, waiting for "divine inspiration" and then--voila!--"500 pages later you've created art."

"I didn't have a story to tell. They were just dogs. It was me typing."

His first published novel, "The Monkey's Raincoat," an original paperback from Bantam in 1987, was rejected by nine publishers. That it found an audience, Crais says, was due to the persistence of obscure booksellers "who were hand-selling it to customers."

It went on to garner him the first of three nominations for the Edgars--sort of the mystery writers' Oscar--this one in the best original paperback category.

The genesis of that novel was the death of his father in 1985 and his realization that, after 45 years of marriage, his mother "had never written a check, paid a bill, used a credit card." It was, he recalls, "that moment when our roles reversed and I became the parent. I used my writing to sort out my life and help me make sense of things."

Specifically, he created a character he named Ellen Lang, an anachronistic woman who, like his mother, found herself unprepared for life without her husband.

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