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Chasing Darkness by Robert Crais – The hardboiled detective

August 14, 2008

I have seriously been considering taking shooting lessons. I don’t really need to own the gun, I will just borrow one at the shooting range – lessons are $15 an hour. I am going to blame this fascination on Elvis Cole. No, not Elvis Costello – or Presley. Cole. He is the hard-boiled detective of a mystery series written by Robert Crais.

When I first started reading mysteries as a very young person, I read all of the classic writers: Rex Stout, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Michey Spillane, Ross Macdonald, John D. MacDonald. I also read cozies, which are on the opposite end of the spectrum, but I preferred the hard-boiled. Most often set in California, but also New York, and sometimes Florida, they are tough, full of attitude and a flaunting of authority.

Wikepedia lists the hard-boiled detective with the following attributes:
* He is a private investigator between 35 and 45 years or so, and both a loner and a tough guy.
* Displays numerous macho attributes, he is not family man and does not associate with lots of friends. Alone at home, his diet often consists of fried eggs, black coffee and cigarettes (though Cole likes to cook, and eats well.)
* He meets his casual acquaintances at his favourite haunts, which are shady all-night bars where he turns out to be a heavy drinker without ever getting too drunk to be unaware of his surroundings or unable to defend himself when attacked.
* He always wears a gun and does not mind shooting criminals if the necessity arises, or being beaten up if it helps him solve a case. He certainly has a penchant for attractive “dames”, especially the gorgeous blonde clients, many a femme fatale among them, who come to his shabby little office on one of the upper floors of a downtown highrise to have their unfaithful husbands shadowed by a private eye.
* He is always short of cash and invariably asks for a down payment. Cases that at first seem easy and straightforward, often turn out to be quite complicated, forcing him to embark on an odyssey through the urban landscape which often involves having to deal with organized crime (“rackets”) and low life of all sorts crowding the “mean streets” of urban America, preferably Los Angeles, New York, or Chicago. This is how he acquires his reputation as a troublemaker.
* A hard-boiled private eye has an ambivalent attitude towards the police. On the one hand, he realizes that both the “cops” and he himself are fighting on the same side. On the other hand, especially where police corruption and foul play are involved, it is his ambition to save America and rid it of its mean elements all by himself.

I was completely amazed when I read that list. How many books have you read that followed that exact description?

When he was fifteen, Crais read Raymond Chandler’s The Little Sister, and it inspired his love of writing, Los Angeles, and crime fiction. He mentions other literary influences include Dashiell Hammett, Ernest Hemingway, Robert B. Parker, and John Steinbeck. (Parker also happens to be another one of my favorite, hard-boiled, series detective, though his character is a Boston P.I.)

The first Cole novel was published in 1987, titled The Monkey’s Raincoat. Crais has gone on to write nine more in the series. It is a good idea to start in the beginning. Not only is it helpful to have the background on Cole, but Crais’s writing style changes and matures as the series continues. He uses ‘first person’ narrative combined with flashbacks, multiple story lines, multiple points-of-view, and various literary elements to bring out the theme.

The latest Cole novel is titled Chasing Darkness. Elvis Cole is back, along with his sidekick, Joe Pike. I haven’t talked about Joe Pike, yet. Whoa. He is one tough dude. He is even more outside the law than Cole. A vet, with big red arrows tattooed on his biceps (always moving forward), Pike is a little scary. He is the star in his own novel in the 2007 release The Watchman.

From the book cover of Chasing Darkness:

It’s fire season, and the hills of Los Angeles are burning. When police and fire department personnel rush door to door in a frenzied evacuation effort, they discover the week-old corpse of an apparent suicide. But the gunshot victim is less gruesome than what they find in his lap: a photo album of seven brutally murdered young women – one per year, for seven years. And when the suicide victim is identified as a former suspect in one of the murders, the news turns Elvis Cole’s world upside down. Three years earlier Lionel Byrd was brought to trial for the murder of a female prostitute named Yvonne Bennett. A taped confession coerced by the police inspired a prominent defense attorney to take Byrd’s case, and Elvis Cole was hired to investigate. It was Cole’s eleventh-hour discovery of an exculpatory videotape that allowed Lionel Byrd to walk free. Elvis was hailed as a hero. But the discovery of the death album in Byrd’s lap now brands Elvis as an unwitting accomplice to murder. Captured in photographs that could only have been taken by the murderer, Yvonne Bennett was the fifth of the seven victims – two more young women were murdered after Lionel Byrd walked free. So Elvis can’t help but wonder – did he, Elvis Cole, cost two more young women their lives? Shut out of the investigation by a special LAPD task force determined to close the case, Elvis Cole and Joe Pike desperately fight to uncover the truth about Lionel Byrd and his nightmare album of death – a truth hidden by lies, politics, and corruption in a world where nothing is what it seems to be.

A list of Crais’s books starring Elvis Cole follows: The Monkey’s Raincoat – 1987, Stalking the Angel – 1989, Lullaby Town – 1992, Free Fall – 1993, Voodoo River – 1995, Sunset Express – 1996, Indigo Slam -1997, L. A. Requiem – 1999, The Last Detective – 2003, The Forgotten Man – 2005

For more information on the hard-boiled kind of guy, there are a number of great sites. Crime Culture has a lot of interesting information of mystery and detectives. Also check out Black Mask, the official web site for “the pulp magazine that launched a thousand pop culture dreams.” The site is the “cyber-revival of the classic hard-boiled pulp crime mag that first introduced the world to such writers as Dashiell Hammett, Erle Stanley Gardner and Raymond Chandler, and also hold the rights for a slew of other pulp magazines: Dime Detective, Strange Detective Mysteries, Terror Tales and others.”

Those were the days! Only ten cents, and check out that cover. It has it all happening right there!

14 Comments leave one →
  1. August 14, 2008 9:08 pm

    Have you heard of the author Denise Mina? I listened to an interview with her on NPR the other day. She writes crime novels set in Glasgow. They sounded dark, and good!

  2. August 14, 2008 9:14 pm

    Hi Pamela. Yes, I like Denise Mina’s books very much. They are dark, and GOOD. I wrote a review a while back,
    I recommend any of her books, but be sure to read them in order! Like you, I enjoy things of Scotland, so Glasgow as a setting is great.

  3. August 15, 2008 12:10 am

    I have certainly become a fan of the hard-boiled detective novel, and the spy novel, mostly over the last 2 years. I credit Casino Royale for turning me on to Ian Fleming’s novels and in turn making me want to read older, pulp titles. It certainly isn’t that I hadn’t read any before, but I’ve certainly grown to the point that these kind of novels feel like must reads for me during the year. Growing up I read several of the Toff books by John Creasey and I just love those. Every so often I get in the Toff mood and just hit my local library. There are still many that I haven’t read.

    I recently read Kill Now, Pay Later by Robert Terrall (the Hard Case Crimes reprint) and really enjoyed it.

    I have several other Hard Case novels on those infamous bookshelves waiting to be read as well as a number of older Robert McGinnis covered books that I would love to actually read someday. I also bought The Thin Man earlier this year and look forward to getting to that…the movies are among my favorite classic films.

    New York Stories by Paul Auster that I reviewed awhile back also loosely fits into this genre.

    And someday I’d like to get to books like The Maltese Falcon, for example. If only I got paid to read!

    I’m really enjoy mysteries and in that sense I am a ‘fan’ but not like my wife is. Almost all that she reads/listens to are mysteries. That and Young Adult fiction are her favs. Perhaps the most recent ‘mystery’ books I’ve read, besides the hard case crime stuff, are Charles Todd’s post WWI mysteries. I like them, just have to spread them out a bit or they get too repetitive for me.

  4. August 15, 2008 12:11 am

    oops, that link is actually here:

  5. August 15, 2008 2:28 am

    I missed the review you wrote about Robert Terrall….. I was in lala land around that time, I think, with job interviews and end of difficult school year stuff. I’m glad you added the link – I will check out some Robert Terrall. I had forgotton about Charles Todd – I read SEARCH THE DARK, featuring Inspector Ian Rutledge, a year or two ago. I will have to read another by him.

    Like your wife, I am pretty much a mystery reader = at least 75% of the stuff I read.
    I put spy novels in that category, too. I totally enjoyed the few books that Robert Ludlum wrote with Gayle Lynds. Her books are REALLY great, too.

    I was at the library this afternoon and picked up the newest Colin Cotterill book – CURSE OF THE POGO STICK. I think you would appreciate this series – quite unusual.

    Thanks for the reading tips, Carl!

  6. August 15, 2008 4:15 am

    I still lean pretty heavy sci-fi and fantasy…at least in my mind I do. When I look over my reading lists for the last few years that doesn’t necessarily bear itself out. It does this year though, mostly because I made a conscious effort to ‘go back to my roots’ as it were in the beginning of the year and read only sci fi for the first 2 months of the year.

    If you are looking for something that is a mystery and many other things, you might be interested in Snake Agent by Liz Williams:

  7. August 15, 2008 6:25 am

    Ooooooo – that looks really good. Thanks, Carl!

  8. August 16, 2008 6:55 am

    Great entry – love the photos with the info, too! I have fallen into “hard-boiled” by association. My hubs keeps a collection and if one happens to be lying around, I’ll read it. Not to mention having sat through many Bogart films done as hardboiled cine-noir.
    You’ve inspired, though – may have to plop down with one of them soon and totally escape (and change up my lingo a bit, hear a different voice, so to speak.)

  9. August 16, 2008 7:40 pm

    Like, “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”
    It is great stuff.

    Did you get your book from Scott?

  10. August 16, 2008 8:01 pm

    No, I didn’t get the book from Scott yet…maybe today!

  11. August 19, 2008 6:43 pm

    Oh, please let me know if you don’t receive it by the end of this week, and I will let Scott know.

    Hey Carl, I picked up Snake Agent and the next one in the series at the library last night. I really enjoy series books. Thanks for recommending. I read Curse of the Pogo Stick this weekend – it was great – I hope you add that series to your list, I think you would like Dr. Siri.

  12. August 20, 2008 12:29 am

    Glad to hear it was good. I have the two most recent books in Liz Williams’ Detective Inspector Chen series that I need to get to! So many books indeed!!!

  13. February 27, 2009 5:36 pm


  14. Jan Hart permalink
    July 17, 2011 5:33 pm

    Have you read hardboiled detective novels such has from Desmond Cory? I downloaded his latest ebook on Amazon called Secret Ministry. He is suppose to be on of the early “Brit-Grit” writers, and I have to say, I love these books with their quintessential English style. It would be good to read your views on these type of detective novels.
    I have not read any Brit-Grit… I will have to check it out!! Thanks for the suggestion.

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