Elvis Cole used to be a wiseass, a Los Angeleno P.I. with a classic chip on his shoulder and an inspiration-giving statue of Jiminy Cricket overlooking his cheesy gumshoe office. What happened? The invention of popular mystery writer Robert Crais, Cole has gotten noticeably deeper as his series of adventures continues. In the ninth installment, The Last Detective, he barely cracks a smile. Not that he has anything to smile about: The book has the detective hot on the trail of a psychotic kidnapper, whose victim happens to be the ten-year-old son of Cole's girlfriend, Lucy Chenier. No laughing matter.
But there's more to the transformation than an ugly twist of plot. Crais says Cole's character is deepening because the time was right: In his last Elvis Cole novel, L.A. Requiem, the author delved into the background of Cole's strong, silent sidekick Joe Pike, fleshing out a character whose depth previously straddled the line between comic-book shallows and the archetype of Robert B. Parker's Hawk. Now Crais is doing the same with Cole himself: If the detective always had a chip on his shoulder, we're going to begin learning why.
"My growing feeling is that in order for Elvis Cole to take the risks he takes, he had to have dark beginnings," Crais says. "He couldn't have come from a happy-go-lucky, normal environment." Not surprising for a guy whose own mother changed his name from Jimmie to Elvis on a lark when he was six years old, a shred of background only the most diehard fans may recall from the very first Cole mystery, The Monkey's Raincoat.
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The throwback reference is no mistake. Crais, who obviously bonds with his characters, says that the span of nine novels has given him time to think about Cole and what motivates him. One recurring theme stands out: "Again and again, it seems that Elvis Cole will, in some fashion, be trying to reunite people, to build a family unit. I have to ask myself why it would be so important to him that he would be willing to take such enormous risks of his life and his freedom to do so. His commitment sometimes borders on obsessive."
The Last Detective also seemed like the perfect place to incorporate another Crais creation, Carol Sharkey. Not exactly a lighthearted character herself, Sharkey was the heroine of Crais's recent stand-alone thriller Demolition Angel, cast as a tough, chain-smoking bomb-squad detective who blew up, caught a glimpse of the white light, then lived to tell the story. Yeesh.
"I loved writing her so much," Crais says devotedly, adding that bringing Sharkey back was a natural. "Even when I was writing Demolition Angel, I thought, 'You know, she's just gotto meet Elvis and Joe.'" And he admits that writing a female is a welcome change of pace, though he's had practice in a previous guise as a television screenwriter for a slew of dramas, including Cagney & Lacey. Sharkey, he reveals, is already a known player in the next Elvis Cole novel, a project he's only just begun.
And speaking of screenwriting, is Elvis Cole still off-limits to Hollywood? Crais, who's steadfastly refused to sign any movie deals over the years, says the answer is still yes. To explain why, he describes a recent television interview he caught while channel-surfing one night, in which L.A. Confidential author James Ellroy talked about that screen adaptation.
"He was talking about how much he liked the cast," Crais recalls. "But he said no one in the movie - not Russell Crowe or Guy Pearce or Kevin Spacey -- looks how he describes them in the book. Having seen the movie, though, he now sees theirfaces whenever he revisits his own novel. That's one of the things that I think I'm trying to avoid by not selling Elvis and Joe to films. I've never seen their faces, and I don't want to. If I do, I think it would corrupt the magic process. Everything will be different. Everything I write will not be as true."