April 11, 2011


by Robert Crais
416 pages, Ballantine Books

Reviewed by Bill Kirton

Robert Crais certainly doesn’t need me to tell readers how good he is. He’s deservedly on the best-seller lists more or less permanently and L. A. Requiem has all the ingredients that keeps him there. It’s dark, funny, tense, varied and (breathe it gently) literary. He’s one of those writers who transcends genre with apparent ease. That’s not to say that all his ‘writerliness’ is successful. I found some of the asides about Los Angeles (asides in the sense that they were counterpoints to the main, page-turning narrative) slightly irritating. (It’s like that clichĂ© ‘Only in America’ or ‘Only in London’ or ‘Only in [supply your own location]’ which implies a uniqueness about a place or culture which doesn’t bear analysis.)

Anyway, this is a great read. It features a serial killer who, while he drives the plot’s progression, is only part of what makes the book so gripping. The revelations about Joe Pike’s childhood and the other experiences that formed him; the strength of the friendship between him and Elvis Cole, the detective whose viewpoint we share for most of the story; the threat that friendship represents to Cole’s deeply loving relationship with Lucy; the power struggles between members of the police force and between the police, Pike and Cole; all these and more threads make up a many layered narrative which unwraps surprise after surprise and, on more than one occasion, seems to settle into following one direction, but is forced to take another. It’s a whodunit mixed with other mysteries in which the twists just keep coming. When he stops to fill in a couple of paragraphs of description, it’s both an irritant because you want to stay with the story and a rest because you need to step outside the tension and pace of it all.

It’s a narrative too which takes the bold step of mixing first and third person perspectives. At times, we follow the thoughts and experiences of Cole, at others, an omniscient narrator takes over and Cole becomes just one of the characters. Add the italicised flashback sequences and you have a complex structure which never creaks because Crais’ control is so sure.

The details of police procedures are immaculately described, the drifting ash from the Californian fires keeps settling over everything to remind us of time and place, and the whole story takes place in a very real setting peopled by meticulously observed and totally credible characters.

Crais gives us the archetypal, wise-cracking private eye, but the acuteness of his observations puts Cole in a rich context to which others contribute their own brands of humour, repartee, courage and humanity. A character ‘smiled like a priest explaining why you had to empty your pockets if you wanted to get to heaven’, Cole is in a checkout queue and notes that ‘The shoppers … were annoyed with him – they probably hadn't spent the day with a young woman with a hole in her head. The cashier said, "Are we having a nice day, sir?"’ And there are many other throwaway effects that only seem effortless because Crais has refined them so perfectly.

But, just in case this reads like the bulletin of the Robert Crais fan club, I have to admit that, as with so many thrillers and mysteries, there’s a slight feeling of disappointment at the outcomes. They’re logical and tick the boxes which fans of the genre need to see filled but, compared with the tensions he’s created for us throughout the book, they’re very slightly anticlimactic. There’s also a final couple of pages on the city which, while beautifully written, had me thinking ‘I don’t care about Los Angeles, it’s these people in the story who’ve kept my interest’.

But it’s a beautiful book, crafted by a master. Oh, and it taught me a new word – ‘Poontang’.

1 comment:

  1. If you didn't know the word 'poontang', you're clearly not a fan of TV's "South Park". Thanks for this review, I've never come across Crais, but will check him out