The Emotional Harpoons

Right: You have some highly developed bad guys with strong personalities. I don’t think those things are necessarily yet reflected in The New York Times best seller list, but they’re there. And that is the purpose of it, that it was going to be a two-on-two situation. So when I created Harvey and Stemms, who are not the über-bad guys here, the über-villains, but they are the primary menaces for Elvis Cole, I created two guys who I would think are … Let me put it to you this way — every day I got to sit down and write a Harvey and Stemms scene, I didn’t want it to end. How do you keep it fresh and what was — besides the search for family you mentioned — what’s the fresh element in The Wanted? 
Well, the fresh element for me is the focus that I bring to Elvis Cole’s desire. Now, at the same time I was a teenager, so I’m reading a lot of other crap, but those are the three favorites. Right, and the appeal of your novels I think —
Sure. But you’ve been a detective writer now for three decades and I expect you’re part of various conventions. So speaking of private investigators, somebody you and I have talked about over the years is Ross Macdonald’s detective Lew Archer. I love Los Angeles. Yeah, he was a detective, but he was almost a great listener more than anything. So as I’ve changed, the character evolves. I think all that’s great. So Joe Pike, who you mentioned, is a very reliable, sort of laconic ex-marine. Right, rich people have a lot of stuff, so they’re crucial to crime fiction. And the way that Lew Archer reacted to the people around him and observed the world around him, whether it’s cheesy apartments and two-story walk-ups in Santa Monica or the wealthier people who Lew Archer had to deal with. Ross Macdonald was an educated, bright, intellectual man, and it showed in the character. This is fun. I didn’t have the other characters, I didn’t have the story, none of that. I always responded to a duo. It’s all on the up. Yeah, I think so, and look — one-dimensional villains are easy to create, but they are not interesting to me. I think if anything in modern detective fiction, the very rich in the main aren’t portrayed as one-note, as one-dimensionally as they used to be, I think for a lot of reasons. It’s sort of an open-ended landscape, socially, and culturally, and physically, and in every way. I’d rather go fishing. Someone on the Good Day LA staff found that book — the exact same edition of that book, and they used it as a graphic. But I knew, that’s what this book is about. I’m not an idiot, I hate the traffic. What does having a partnership, as opposed to a standard Sam Spade, Lew Archer kind of hero, allow you to do as a novelist that you wouldn’t if it was just a lone hero, a lone wolf? When they made me laugh, they made me cringe, they scared the shit out of me, that’s — after 21 books you know, if I’m devoting a year of my life to writing a novel, if I’m sitting there, you know what it’s like. They’re like the antimatter Joe and Elvis. I’m not sure, only because of the three, I discovered Chandler first, Hammett second, and I came to Ross Macdonald last. I didn’t realize you were exposed so early. People want their stuff, so they tend to show up in books like this. APRIL 24, 2018

ROBERT CRAIS RECENTLY PUBLISHED his 21st novel, The Wanted, the story of a single mother whose teenage son mysteriously falls into money around the time he begins hanging out with a shady new group of friends. Do you follow detective fiction in other cities, in other countries — have a sense of places that are particularly rich? We see him mature, and become more yearning —
Well he still wears Hawaiian shirts …
But he becomes more yearning and concerned for the big picture as he gets older, the way most people do. ¤
Scott Timberg is the editor of The Misread City: New Literary Los Angeles and author of Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class. I’ll tell you a cool thing. You read a lot of history, or biography, or…? So I use that as a factor in the book — a burden for the police officers, who are the blue-collar workers who have to get the job done. And today, as has always been the case, no matter the city they live in, the people who are connected tend to have more weight to throw around, and get more attention. That’s the appeal to me. And people read, in the main, some form of crime fiction — whether it’s thrillers, suspense novels, detective novels, cozy mysteries, you name it. A force of nature. I don’t limit my reading to crime fiction. Do you have any antecedents in mind for those two either in theater, movies, literature? I want to talk about a theme that’s been part of American politics for the last few years. And I think, you know he ends up making Ozzie and Harriet jokes — because of events that happened, the mother has to come and she has to leave her house, because bad guys are after them. You never got the feeling that Lew Archer was a street gun. I don’t want to get too detailed as to how the rich people are portrayed in this book, because we’d give away the ending, or part of the ending. Here in this place, anything can happen — and I’m not talking about in my books, I’m talking about in the world, just living here in the city. You can turn onto any street, and the possibilities are endless. And that’s the one, man. A native of Louisiana, Crais came to town in the ’70s to break into television, writing for Hill Street Blues, Cagney & Lacey, and Miami Vice. I like that he’s an outsider, and he’s not part of this big machine of city government. Right, so you built the plot, the crime, the other characters around that moment. So while reading his books was not as emotional an experience for me as reading the Raymond Chandler books, there’s an aspect to that that I like a lot, and that when I first discovered Ross Macdonald and was reading that I enjoyed quite a bit and had an appreciation for. Right, it becomes a fair fight, with two criminals versus two detectives. They’ve always been a major part of detective fiction, so what has their role been and has it changed, perhaps since the days when Sam Spade would show up in a wealthy person’s house? Hammett’s Sam Spade, no doubt about it, could be. I also read eclectically. Tell us a little about them. And therefore I don’t need him to be internalized the way he would otherwise be. And then there’s Ross Macdonald and Lew Archer. I’m not the same person I was when I wrote my first book in the mid-’80s in a cabin in Lake Arrowhead. You know, because he actually is one of those rare males who wants to be married, he would like to have a kid. Yeah, it’s there, and it’s popular for a variety of reasons. I was just at Noireland, which was the international crime conference in Belfast, Ireland. But the fact of his commitment to this women — the fact of his all-in desire to not just solve the crime, it’s the fact that he wants, he wants to save this man in such a way that he is able to provide a father’s guidance to help this kid turn his life around, and grow up to be a man worth growing up to be. How do the very, very rich factor in your novels? Sure. It’s probably in all of your books to some extent, but I feel it more in this novel, is what we’ve come to call the one percent and the very rich, which is a big part of the landscape in L.A. Writers and readers both, I think, are looking for fiction that’s more complex, more nuanced, with characters that are more interesting. Do you have a sense of where the genre is now compared to where it was 30, 35 years ago when you started? And also as an impediment to Elvis Cole, who’s working on the outside. But I love — I mean I would do this …
You would just do it for fun, right? Not for them. Phil Marlowe could have been, the war veteran, the knight errant. He’s not a talker. Yeah, and an important part of this book. As an artist what appeals to me about them is that I can use these two characters to dig deeper into each other’s — I can use their partnership, friendship, love for each other to reveal more about them as characters, them as human beings. Do you feel pressure to keep up with the different neighborhoods, and all the different currents that are always washing across Los Angeles? Well it depends, a lot of it has to do with research. I read diversely. I am my audience, and I want to read characters who are surprising, and interesting, and would say the unexpected. At least that’s the approach I’ve always taken. Does it feel like it’s repeating itself? Things have impacts. What do you think you’re doing that comes from him. But, overall, people read. And that’s the international level, but here in the United States — and there’s more women writing crime fiction than ever before, more women writing it successfully than ever before — diverse voices. So, for me, Dashiell Hammett had higher energy, an insider’s view of best-selling detective fiction. But I like the fact that he’s this alone guy, this freelance person. There’s terrific noir writers, Scotland — Denise Mina is one of them. And that duo seems to come out of a tradition of cinematic, maybe bad guy duos, or cinematic antiheroes, or literary antiheroes. In distress, of course. Anything can happen. And I think Ross Macdonald enjoyed that aspect. So on any particular project, depending upon the research that’s going to happen, that’ll dictate whether I’m reading manuals for how the LAPD K-9 platoon conducts its business and tends to its dogs, or night-vision optics that special services use a lot. Oh, there was a heavy element of psychology in the noir-era books. You want to create a screaming maniac with a knife, you can do that while you gargle — it’s not a test. Still waters, and all that stuff. L.A.’s a character. It becomes a weight on their back. There are waves, it’s like a general sine wave roll. So then I began thinking about Elvis’s desire for family. One major part of all your novels, and it’s true of this one, there’s a lot of detail. I mean in some ways it all started here in San Francisco and in Los Angeles, but there’s now a noir collection set in Nairobi, and set in every country in Latin America, and in Warsaw. I drive around for fun, I take pictures of random houses, I take pictures of trees and I don’t even know what the trees are. I think it’s growing and it’s a super positive thing for a variety of reasons. He’s the male, there’s an adult woman who’s the female mother. Turn right on that same street, and then around the corner, and you’ve got something so bizarre that no one’s ever even imagined it. He came close that one time. That’s what I look for. I have this huge photo file, because all of that pours into the books. Because their inventiveness was endlessly amusing to me. Tell us a little about what you respond to in Macdonald’s work and what sort of affinities you feel with what he does. ¤
SCOTT TIMBERG: Okay, so 21 books, most of them with Elvis. So those are the points of underlying energies that are at work in the book. I don’t read those particular writers because their work is set somewhere, though I imagine that’s an element. Does the field seem healthy to you? I think we’re seeing more voices from more diverse cultures and more diverse experience bases than ever. It doesn’t have to be different. He isn’t drab or grim about it, you know, humor is a good part of Elvis Cole’s personality. I don’t like that. You know, the architecture, places. And the “big three” were the original big three, that means it was Ross Macdonald, Raymond Chandler, and Dashiell Hammett. There’s something about voices, something about their characters I enjoy. So you begin to develop things, you know — and it’s almost like global thinking, you know? Ian Rankin? Because when I’m doing it, you know what I’m thinking? Has he changed at all, or has he been pretty steady in his values and instincts? 
ROBERT CRAIS: Well, over the course of the series, the books are about his life, his evolution — of course he’s changed, I’ve changed. I think it’s more diverse and it’s broader than it’s ever been. Like most of Crais’s books, The Wanted features his detective Elvis Cole; laconic sidekick Joe Pike, who has become a more consistent presence over the last decade or so, also appears. That’s Los Angeles. Because that’s what he is; he’s not part of the system. You know, I have a partnership. At the kickoff just three days ago, I was on Good Day LA and somebody there in the staff really did their homework, because my first book of detective fiction — when I was 15 years old, in a secondhand bookstore in Baton Rouge, it was called Book Exchange — it’s no longer in business — I found a 20th-hand copy of [Chandler’s] The Little Sister. He set most of his books in Southern or Central California, so there’s an obvious parallel, but what are the other things you feel like you’re connecting with in your own work? So could you give us a sense of, over the 30 years, how this character has changed? Do you have a sense of it? You already said, like most writers, you read eclectically, inside and outside your own field. Right, so Elvis, who started out as kind of — there’s probably a better word for this — I think in the early Elvis books, he’s a little bit goofy. Because they bring out great stuff in each other. So how do you keep from repeating yourself, and how do you keep each book alive for you? So she’s taking up residence in Nova Scotia, now they have this uncomfortable situation where they’re living together, and she falls into that a lot more easily than Elvis Cole does, so humor ensues. And this book came to me — I saw a glimpse, Elvis Cole in his house, he has this A-frame in the Hollywood Hills, it’s nighttime, I know it’s dark, there’s a lot of shadows. Elvis has a partner named Joe Pike. That gets to the intellectual patina. Yeah, I think a number of us picked up those books because of the alluring covers. And what drew me there is that he had a sort of ironical maturity that the other two detectives — and it was different from Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, and I think that was reflective of who Ross Macdonald was as a person and as a writer. Because no matter what’s happened in the course of the story, if Elvis and Joe are together, I know I have something that’s going to be interesting and fun for me to do. That drove everything else, that’s the nuclear core of the rest of the book. This is what I want to read if I were reading a book. Yeah, he wasn’t here at this particular festival, which is unfortunate because I wanted to meet him. That’s Harvey and Stemms. And interesting means complex, and multidimensional. One of the joys for me of living here is being here. Right. Every bookstore you go into will have a crime or a detective section, and they won’t have a Western section the way they would have 50 years ago, and they might have a science fiction section and they might not, but they will have a decent crime and detective shelf. Things come, things go, things heat up, and things go away depending on anything — current events, popular movies at the time. Does crime fiction feel like it’s in a period of enrichment? I like buddy pictures. That’s just a time thing. When I created Harvey and Stemms, I actually wanted to do a flip on — you know, Elvis and Joe a pair, Harvey and Stemms a pair. He could be a street monster when he chose to be. I love everything that diversity brings to us. Exactly, the bizzaro-world Elvis and Joe. And that’s all I had. When an influence hits you so early it’s hard to extricate yourself from it. I read what I enjoy. And he’s alone with his cat, with his refrigerator full of beer …
And that’s it! Pretty soon there’s a kid, he ends up being a 17-year-old teenage boy and then there’s the single mother; and of course she’s got to be single because what Elvis needs is this facade of a family. [Both laugh.] I mean, you never know what I’m going to be reading. It cost 17 cents. You know, you turn left on that street and you can find some hide-bound enclave that is the same as it’s always been. In large part because of the internet, and because of the alternative forms of publishing that exist now. Do you feel like you’re getting deeper into the villains than you have in previous books with these guys? For pleasure, my nonfiction reading right now tends to be about mountain climbing in the Sierra Nevadas, a capella competitions. Those guys have me entertained — those moments, it’s what keeps me motivated, keeps me fresh. I love the diversity. And little by little over time, the story unfolds. Yes he could mix it up, but that wasn’t his true nature. No matter which direction Elvis Cole turns in, he’s on his own. And that kind of excitement and energy is perfect for what I like, perfect for me as a human being. Call me irresponsible, but I love Los Angeles. This book came to me — they all come to me usually with an image, like a flash image that has no beginning or ending. I would do it for fun, I love it. The bulk of my reading is nonfiction. Right, he’s pretty much always on the outside, the way Marlowe is. 
I get asked a lot, “Why did you make Elvis Cole a private investigator, as opposed to any of the other things he could have been?” Well, by being a private investigator he is automatically on the outside, and that outsider identity is appealing for me. You know, I love to explore the city. Elvis has a life, and that life has impact — in fact, I think the core of the current novel, The Wanted, is that he’s at a place in his life where he’s feeling — it is about his need, a recognized need he has or desire he has for family. But I think today, all publishing — and I don’t care what category you’re talking about, whether it’s all the way from literary fiction, through science fiction, crime, fantasy, romance, whatever, you name it — is a cyclical beast. And the audience in me, the reader in me, the fan in me — that character appeals to me. In distress, right? Chandler was the emotional poet of Los Angeles, whose character just embodied world-weary goodness and ability. Elvis Cole can say things to Joe Pike that he would not realistically say to anyone else. This is great. So I don’t know that there’s a specific influence from each — I think there’s probably a more significant influence from Chandler’s notion of the knight, the nobility of the knight errant, the loner of the knight, but all of it sort of got thrown into the mix. He was an educated guy — studied with Auden I think, for a while. So you’ve got the same character, most of these books — maybe all of them — take place in the same city. I just find that more appealing — I won’t say more heroic, because I don’t think it is. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] Right, a man of action, few words. 
Yeah, he’s very internalized. Yeah, well that makes sense. There are so many possibilities. And I think the many and diverse voices that are finding a foothold across all the publishing platforms can only be good for the genre. So I want to conclude with a kind of impossible question. Well it’s interesting, because there’s the “big three” in American detective fiction. Maybe this is true of a lot of writers, but would you be a very different writer if you weren’t based in and writing about Los Angeles? The more the merrier. His award-winning debut, Monkey’s Raincoat, came out in 1987. Perhaps Crais’s best quality is his ability to suit the page-turning demands of the mass-market, best-selling crime thriller with the more literary, character-based emphasis of his hero Ross Macdonald. Terrific, John Connolly is there. But I’m reading all the people who were writing at the time, so it all went into the cauldron, so to speak. You know all the different — I’m a foodie — I love all of the types of food we eat. I didn’t even get to the part with the beer yet — all I had was, here he is, he’s in his house with the cat, and the line that came to me — Elvis says, “I don’t have kids, I have a cat.” And he was so melancholy in this moment, that for me, that’s what it’s all about: the emotional harpoons. That’s why I chose to write it as this, because I like it. There’s no linear order to this thinking. It’s like a parent or a big brother. I read because I enjoy something. Lew Archer, to me, was a bit more genteel than that. Completely different. There was an element to Phil Marlowe that was just — you know the ex-cop, the ex-deputy sheriff. I interviewed Crais over brunch at a cafe in West Hollywood, where he wrote much of the novel. You live here, you’ve lived here for a long time, but this city changes so quickly. And basically it’s him against the world. So I have this duality of Elvis and Joe. Yeah, L.A.’s an important character in all your books. Crime fiction in and of itself, if you just look purely at numbers, it’s the most successful of the categories — it sells huge numbers of books, people like crime fiction. Right, what rich people bring to that particular mix that’s interesting is that the very wealthy tend to have city government connections. I love all the different areas and the architectures of L.A. I like it that he’s on the outside. If there’s not something that you can invest in, that’s worth doing for me, then I don’t want to do it. He literally states — in those moments between Elvis Cole and the boy’s mother, he actually gives voice to us about his feeling of loss, feeling of emptiness that he doesn’t have someone in his life to love. I mean anything can happen. Having said that, the über-rich can be portrayed as the role requires — meaning, either with protagonistic aspects, i.e., the good guys, or as villains. So what’s your nonfiction reading like? You know, we’ve got the same guy, the same place, there’s always a crime of some kind that needs to be solved. And I think the Eudora Welty and the others, and the reason Ross Macdonald got as much attention as he has was the intellect that he brought to it — people appreciate it. Well that’s totally diverse. After that, it’s — you know, all the characters that I create, if they’re not interesting to me they’re not going to be interesting to anyone else. Elvis Cole’s not a lone entity. It’s not a pressure I feel. But there were representatives from Sweden and France. He was almost a psychotherapist or something, a Freudian therapist. Every street and neighborhood — physical detail, but also social detail: what kinds of people live in places, down to what the streets look like. I don’t want him to be steady-state, you know, like episode 27 of [’60s–’70s detective show] Mannix or whatever it is, you know — unchanging? And in fact I give him — in this book he has a voice to that. You get to create guys like Harvey and Stemms. So I enjoy the interplay. There was a tad bit more of an intellectual patina around him and his work, where you could see Macdonald the intellectual thinking through all the adventures that he set for Lew Archer. And the only reason I bought it was there was a really hot chick on the cover. He’s very young, he wears Hawaiian shirts. And that drove everything else. And they can drive an investigation, or the engine of a novel like yours. 
They have phones to pick up, they can pick up the telephones. The books move, but they are also richly detailed, with well-researched glimpses into contemporary Los Angeles. But in the main, in The Wanted obviously I’m dealing with a burglary ring, and burglary rings, at least the more interesting burglary rings, tend to burglarize the homes of wealthy people. I read for the same reason that everybody reads. There are some good writers in Belfast, too. Ditto Joe Pike — you know, Joe doesn’t have a lot to say anyways. Even if I don’t write about it, the feeling it invokes in me is part of the fabric that imbues the background of the scenes. To delve deeper into the identities of the characters. You sit there at the typewriter, it’s mostly unpleasant. But there are certain writers whose work I enjoy, that just happens to be set in other places. I don’t read nearly as much detective fiction or any kind of fiction as I used to.