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Mission irresistible

The Watchman A Joe Pike Novel Robert Crais Simon & Schuster: 304 pp., $25.95

February 25, 2007|Will Beall | Will Beall, a detective with the Los Angeles Police Department, is the author of "L.A. Rex."

JUST as Charlie Rich and Buck Owens once emulated Elvis Presley, mystery authors of the last 30 years pay homage to Robert B. Parker's redoubtable Spenser and his urban samurai, Hawk. Spenser and Hawk still cast long shadows across our pulp landscape.

In fact, no self-respecting fictional private investigator works without a larger-than-life, extralegal sidekick. For his diverting Spenser clone, Myron Bolitar, author Harlan Coben has cleverly recast Hawk as a lethal WASP named Wynn. Lawrence Block's sober Matt Scudder has a secret sharer in Mick, the Irish gangster with a heart of Guinness. And Robert Crais' Elvis Cole runs with a stoic cop-turned-mercenary who goes by the name of Pike.

In his latest novel, "The Watchman," Crais deftly flips the script. Cole is out of commission, still nursing the wounds he suffered in "The Forgotten Man." So after 20 years riding shotgun, Pike gets to drive the Batmobile. He floors it, in fact.

Pike isn't the subtlest guy in crime fiction (think Terminator minus the Austrian accent), but he's a bona fide guilty pleasure. He wears sunglasses indoors, even at night, and his facial expressions are limited to Clint Eastwood-style mouth twitches. Coyotes even lope alongside him on his moonlight runs, sensing a fellow predator acquainted with the night.

"I qualified as a scout/sniper and served in Force Recon, mostly on long-range reconnaissance teams, hunter/killer teams, and priority target missions," Pike tells fellow cops in a flashback to his first day policing L.A. streets. "I black belt qualified in tae kwon do, kung fu, wing chun, judo, and ubawazi." We're tempted to giggle. Then Crais, acknowledging that he's got a mythic hero on his hands, nicely undercuts Pike's comic-book resume with a wisecrack from a veteran during the Rampart division roll call.

Great thrillers often rely on unhappy coincidence. Killer kismet, if you will. In the movie "North by Northwest," Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) raises his hand to summon a hotel page at the same moment the page calls out for George Kaplan, a government agent being stalked by James Mason's bad-guy character. In "Marathon Man," a fatal crash in Manhattan forces former Nazi dentist Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier) out of hiding to collect his plundered diamonds worth millions.

Yet another collision puts "The Watchman's" damsel, young Larkin Barkley, in distress. When her Aston Martin T-bones a silver Mercedes containing one very bad hombre, Larkin finds herself in the crosshairs of men even the Feds can't protect her from.

Enter Joe Pike, who must guard this wild child from the pistoleros pursuing her. It's "Shane" meets "It Happened One Night." And yes, in case you were wondering, the hunters soon become the hunted. If anything, "The Watchman" may suffer from Pike's supreme competence. It's a pleasure to watch the man work, but it's a little like seeing Arnold Schwarzenegger fight that Freddy Mercury-looking dude at the end of "Commando." Sure, it's a blast, but one doesn't exactly fear for Pike's safety.

Larkin is another matter, however. She is volatile, self-destructive and sexually profligate. We're also told that she's famous for being rich and that her father owns a hotel chain. "She's always in the tabloids -- going wild in clubs, making a big scene, that kind of thing. You've seen her," Cole tells Pike. Indeed, we have. Crais treats us to this Paris Hilton-like lass padding around a safe house in a bra and tiny green thong.

But Pike, more Alan Ladd than Clark Gable, stalwartly resists temptation. "Would you like to watch me masturbate?" Larkin asks Pike between shootouts. Pike demurs, cooling her down with a tale of self-mutilation from his days as a mercenary in Africa. (Poor Harold Robbins must be spinning in his grave.)

Though "The Watchman" lacks some of the depth and texture of Crais' most recent novel, "The Two Minute Rule," he makes up for it with sheer momentum. This book moves like an arrow fired from a compound bow. In fact, Pike's arrow tattoos seem to signify his guerrilla philosophy as well as the book's spartan narrative. Pike explains the tattoos to a curious Larkin: "What they mean is, you control who you are by moving forward, never back; you move forward. That's what I do. That's what we're going to do."

This stuff is too much fun to be good for us, but Robert Crais is the dopamine purveyor of private-eye fiction. The guy has distilled the crime novel into an efficient delivery system. He knows we're addicted and minds it not a bit. *

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