"If a zombie appeared, Daniel planned to jump out the window after it and rip its putrid, unnatural flesh to pieces with his teeth. He was, after all, a werewolf, which was why he was such a good hunter and killer. Werewolves feared nothing."
Mystery readers may wonder if they've been drop-kicked into the wrong genre as they read the unsettling prologue to Robert Crais' new thriller "The Sentry." Set in 2005 during Hurricane Katrina, the prologue introduces the phantasmagorical Tobey and Cleo along with their master, Daniel, who has just killed Tolliver James and his girlfriend while trying to learn the whereabouts of two people he's seeking.
Fast-forward to present-day Los Angeles: P.I. Elvis Cole is unsettled too by a recurring dream. He sees his best friend shot to death in a glittery red mist with a woman's shadow cast on a wall. Check the book's cover and you realize why there is so much strangeness: "The Sentry" is a Joe Pike novel, mixing mayhem with a strong, albeit idiosyncratic moral code delivered by Pike, an ex-cop and sometimes contract operative in his role as sidekick to Cole in Crais' long-running series..
Crais has been giving Pike more attention in recent work (like last year's "The First Rule"), and in "The Sentry" Pike's story starts on a mundane, warm day in Venice. On his way to the gym, Pike drives his Jeep into a gas station and spies two 20-year-olds "necklaced with gang ink, walking with what Pike during his police officer days had called a down-low walk."
Trusting his instincts, Pike observes the two men entering Wilson's TakeOut, a New Orleans-style sandwich shop across the street and decides to follow them. His arrival interrupts the pair beating Wilson Smith, the elderly proprietor, which triggers Pike's idiosyncratic code of honor and causes him, in six seconds, to intervene and subdue one of the men, Reuben Mendoza, by snapping the man's arm and leaving him on the floor "eyes rolling toward Pike like a Chihuahua watching a pit bull."
Story over, right? Wrong. Shortly after the cops interview Smith, his niece Dru Rayne arrives — early 30s, olive-skinned and smart-eyed in a way that stirs something in Pike. Her gratitude and attraction is conveyed in a few brief glances, a shared beer at Venice's iconic Sidewalk Café and the exchanging of cellphone numbers. But along with the promise of those brief encounters comes two LAPD detectives — Futardo and Button — the latter of whom remembers Pike with distaste from his LAPD days. Knowing Pike's reputation, Button suspects he has more to do with the Smith beating and the gang-affiliated perps than he lets on, and Button seems more intent on investigating Pike than the assault.
Pike's attraction to Dru ignites his sense of duty to protect her and her uncle, both Hurricane Katrina refugees, especially after Wilson's store is vandalized with animal carcasses, blood and an ominous scrawled message: I am here. And though the prologue will lure readers into thinking they are ahead of the game, Crais spins the story into unexpected territory where nonprofits, 21st century international gangs and the FBI collide; where good and evil are indistinguishable; and where standing sentry over victims exacts a heavy toll on all those involved.
Being a Joe Pike novel, the action in "The Sentry" is intense and the body count high, but what is more memorable is the manner in which Crais cracks open the door into the enigmatic Pike's emotions and, in the process, explores Pike's experience of love and also the bonds of male friendship. Crais had planned his new book to feature Elvis Cole, but all of that changed, he explained in a recent interview, when he imagined Pike meeting a woman in Venice after he'd saved her uncle from a robbery.
"The way Pike looked at her," Crais told the interviewer, "I knew I had to follow their story."
Readers of "The Sentry," whether they're new to the series or die-hard fans, will be glad that he did.
Woods is the author of the Charlotte Justice crime novels and a regular contributor to The Times.