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BOOK REVIEW

Elvis Cole, L.A. gumshoe

July 01, 2008|Donna Rifkind | Special to The Times

Chasing Darkness

An Elvis Cole Novel

Robert Crais

Simon & Schuster: 274 pp., $25.95

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For MONTHS now, "Chasing Darkness," the 12th novel by Robert Crais to feature Los Angeles private investigator Elvis Cole, has been generating lots of anticipatory buzz among fans (some of whom have organized themselves into an online group called the Craisies). What is it about the Elvis Cole books -- whose first volume, "The Monkey's Raincoat," was published 21 years ago -- that keeps readers wanting more?

The answer lies in a shrewd mixture of consistency and novelty. As is the case with many a classic detective, there are things about Cole that never change. For years, he's lived alone in a hillside A-frame off Mulholland Drive, where he practices taekwondo and watches red-tailed hawks from his deck. He's fond of a stray black cat that bites his visitors and drinks his beer.

He has a perennially unsettled love life: His longtime girlfriend, Lucy Chenier, recently moved back to her native Louisiana, maybe for good. As an investigator, Cole is always getting himself in trouble, infuriating police and criminals alike with his smart mouth and his dogged independence. Just as often, he's rescued from certain death by his best friend and crime-solving partner, a laconic but imposing ex-cop named Joe Pike.

Crais' style throughout all the Elvis Cole novels is as constant as his hero. He delivers sleek, pacy thrillers that, in accordance with Elmore Leonard's advice, leave out the parts that readers tend to skip. The action mostly swerves around a crowded Los Angeles that's as precisely charted as a Thomas Guide. And Crais is as meticulous in describing the tasks performed by all kinds of people involved in crime work, including coroner investigators, lawyers, federal agents and police officers.

While Crais is smart enough not to mess with these core elements, his fiction has evolved. In recent books, he's exposed the tragic pasts of both Cole and Pike, adding a soulful dimension that had me blubbering at the end of "The Last Detective" and rooting for the damaged heroes in "L.A. Requiem" and "The Watchman." He's also made regulars of a few other characters, including Carol Starkey, a bomb-squad expert whom Crais first introduced in "Demolition Angel," and geeky LAPD criminalist John Chen, who provides comic relief when wiseacre Cole isn't in the mood to joke around.

In "Chasing Darkness," Crais turns the spotlight away from Pike, whose presence dominated 2007's "The Watchman," and points it once again toward Cole. Crais also abandons the back stories here, returning to the linear plotting that propelled his older novels.

The new book's action begins during fire season, when the "air, jittery from the heat, rises in swaying tendrils like kelp from the seabed, making the city shimmer." Two cops, going door to door to evacuate residents in a flame-threatened Laurel Canyon neighborhood, find a corpse in one of the houses. It looks like suicide, made more gruesome by the discovery of a photo album at the dead man's feet that contains pictures of seven women, each photographed moments after being brutally murdered.

Cole's interest in the case turns out to be deep. The suicide was a former client of his, Lionel Byrd, whom Cole helped clear of murder charges three years before in the case of a dead prostitute named Yvonne Bennett.

At the time, working on behalf of Byrd's defense attorney, Cole had provided evidence to prove that Byrd was not the killer, and the man was set free. But the fifth photo in the album found near Byrd is Bennett, while subsequent pages hold pictures of two additional female murder victims. Had Cole been wrong about Byrd, and -- worse still -- was his error responsible for the deaths of two more women?

The LAPD's deputy chief, Thomas Marx, "a tall rectangular man built like a sailing ship, with tight skin stretched over a yardarm skeleton," has organized a task force for the case, determined to pin the murders on Byrd. But Cole, who's got reason to believe the police are more concerned with protecting the interests of a city councilman than with seeking the truth, remains unconvinced.

He strikes out on his own, following Lucy's long-distance advice: "If you don't like their facts, find your own facts." Cole's search takes him all over L.A., from swanky downtown law offices to a faded stucco tract house in Reseda; from velvety Pasadena lawns to burned-out yards in Sylmar, from the homeless camps under the 4th Street Bridge to a politician's office in a strip mall. In every corner, secrecy prevails, and nobody -- not even the corpses -- is what he or she appears to be.

Whom can you trust? As in the past, Crais asks the question through Cole, who'd be unemployed or dead many times over without help from Pike and others. It's a trust that's mirrored in the relationship between Crais and the reader, collaborators in these elegantly constructed dreams. As Raymond Chandler, one of Crais' idols, wrote once in a letter: "The lucky writers are those who can outwrite their readers without outthinking them."

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Donna Rifkind, a Los Angeles-based reviewer, has written for the Washington Post and the New York Times.

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