With Robert B. Parker's 30th Spenser novel hitting bookstores, it's good to see that readers are finally getting a clue and have detected just how tired that franchise is - and that Spenser's natural successor is Robert Crais ' L.A. private eye Elvis Cole.
All too often, by the time readers catch up with an author and put him on the bestseller list, his best days are behind him. Not this time. After an Elvis hiatus for two terrific stand-alone thrillers, "Hostage" and "Demolition Angel," Crais has written his best Elvis Cole mystery yet
The eighth novel in the series, "The Last Detective" features all the things that fans expect from Crais : sharp wisecracks, a smart plot and bone-crunching violence. But there's also something they haven't seen before: real emotional depth.
This was hinted at in the previous book in the series, "L.A. Requiem," which focused on Elvis' enigmatic partner, Joe Pike, and his tragic, violent past.
"The Last Detective" is a poignant story about a lonely man with a grim past searching for a real family, something that his life circumstances keep just out of his reach despite the fact that he is a good - even heroic - man who is willing to sacrifice everything for those he loves.
Lucy Chenier and her 10-year old son, Ben, have moved to L.A. to be near Elvis, who likes hanging out with the boy far more than chasing bad guys. But that's what he must do when a very professional team of kidnappers steals Ben from Elvis' back yard, and leave a message saying they have done this in retaliation for a massacre Elvis perpetrated as an Army Ranger in Vietnam.
This is doubly devastating for Lucy, who is both frantic about her son and guilt-ridden that her choice to be with a man who leads a dangerous life has led to this. Even though she believes his version of the past, it seems undeniable that someone has taken Ben to get to Elvis.
Because he knows the story being peddled is complete bull, Elvis isn't so sure. On the other hand, what could Lucy or Ben have possibly done to incur the wrath of a team of men with high-level military skills?
This gives Crais the chance to explore Elvis' character and background more deeply than ever before, and we see a troubled youth who, after being bounced around without family to care for him, finds a family of sorts in his Ranger unit and how the Army shaped his character even though all the members of his new ersatz family were killed.
This adds a level of urgency to the story. In a series like this, we're pretty sure the tale isn't going to end with the death of the boy our hero loves and is setting out to rescue. However, just how this is accomplished and the motives behind the crime will have long-term consequences for Elvis and his happiness.
But that doesn't mean this is some kind of navel-gazing meditation that would have been a candidate for the Oprah Book Club. This Elvis story is lean and mean, and it knows how to rock 'n' roll.
The heart-stopping action climax is so vivid that our mind's eye seems to slow things down as in the lead-up to a traffic accident or the cinematic slo-mo of a Sam Peckinpah movie. I can not remember a more effective violent set piece of this kind in any novel.
When it comes to the American private detective novel these days, Elvis is king.