Every fictional private eye reflects a private fantasy—that of the writer, who projects onto his intrepid gumshoe all of the attributes and attitudes that he prizes in himself, along with a slew of heroic qualities that he can only wish upon himself. Which is fine, as far as it goes: All writing is part therapy. But before taking his fantasy public, a private-eye writer does well to armor it with a keen, compelling voice and with a commitment to storytelling that’s equal to his hero’s commitment to crime-fighting. Crais falters on both counts. He gives to his sleuth and narrator, Elvis Cole, a coyly sarcastic voice that charms briefly but soon wears thin, and then throws Cole into a series of actions that never quite gathers itself into a well-crafted plot.
The building blocks of this tale are straight out of Chandler and Macdonald: a detective hired to recover a stolen rare object (in this case, an ancient Japanese tome called the Hagakure ); a troubled daughter in flight from an affluent, emotionally warped family; a beautiful ice queen who eventually melts in the face of the hero’s charisma; a climactic shift from the sin- and sun-drenched streets of Los Angeles to the false idyll of a mountain hideaway. Crais adds a couple of pieces that have a contemporary feel to them—the specter of child sexual abuse, a threat from Japan (in the form of Yakuza gangsters)—but the structure as a whole remains underdeveloped. Elvis Cole is a smart-ass with a heart of gold, and it’s hard to dislike him. Likability, however, does not always translate into readability.
[ADDENDUM: I’m repeating myself. I felt about this book pretty much the same as I felt about Robert B. Parker’s Looking for Rachel Wallace, and here I express the same kind of disappointment as I did just a few weeks ago about that earlier private-eye tale. Too often, I think, these latter-day exponents of the PI tradition conjure up the attitude of Philip Marlowe, but they lack the wit of Raymond Chandler; they fashion bleak plots that recall the work of Ross Macdonald, but the heroes that they create lack the humanity of Lew Archer. Is it just the case that PI tales that take place more or less in our own time don’t appeal to me? Not quite. I’ve read a few recent books of this kind that are also very good books. I’ll try, before long, to post a review of one such tale.]