Crime writer Robert Crais talks best-sellers, classic TV and the Noireland festival
Robert Crais is the writer behind the best-selling series of novels featuring LA detectives Elvis Cole and Joe Pike. He spoke to David Roy about his latest book, how working on TV hits like Hill Street Blues was a perfect education and his imminent appearance at Belfast's Noireland crime fiction festival
IN A former life, best-selling crime fiction author Robert Crais was a top television scriptwriter who worked on the pioneering cop show Hill Street Blues and other top US TV fare like Quincy, Cagney & Lacey, Miami Vice and LA Law.
Indeed, in 1982, the Los Angeles-based, Louisiana-born Crais (64) received an Emmy nod for his work on Hill Street's second series alongside Steven Bochco (who later helped create LA Law and NYPD Blue), Anthony Yerkovitch (who went on to create Miami Vice) and Michael Kozoll (First Blood).
However, after a decade of writing for the small screen, in 1987 Crais struck out on his own with his award-winning debut novel The Monkey's Raincoat – the first of 16 novels to feature wise-cracking, food-loving Vietnam veteran turned LA private investigator Elvis Cole and his taciturn semi-sociopathic sidekick, Joe Pike.
"When I got into TV it was exciting," recalls Crais (64), who landed his first scriptwriting gig on the hit Robert Blake detective show, Baretta.
"It was glamorous, I was surrounded by all these amazingly creative people collaborating to create these little films. It was an exciting wonderful experience – I was fortunate enough to work with some really talented people and I learned an enormous amount.
"To be in your 20s working with writers like Steven Bochco and sitting down with actors like Jack Klugman [Quincy] with his huge stage experience, reading through scenes and revising dialogue – you simply can't buy an education like that.
"But for me, the reality is that words are my canvas. Rather than spend my career writing collaboratively, there were stories I wanted to tell – and I wanted them to be my stories. So that's why I finally realised that I wanted to write books.
He adds: "I like to think that those lessons I learned [working in TV] led me to be the novelist I became – and hopefully it shows in the work I'm doing now."
Elvis and Joe's next adventure, The Wanted, will be Crais' 21st novel. Due for publication in the US this December and in Britain and Ireland next June, it follows the detective pair's most recent outing, 2016's excellent book The Promise, and four standalone titles; Demolition Angel, Hostage (the basis for the 2005 Bruce Willis movie), The Two Minute Rule and Suspect.
The Wanted finds the duo and their new associate, 'private military contractor' Jon Stone (who also featured in The Promise), tracking down a pair of teenage burglars on the run from a Very Bad Guy determined to reclaim his property regardless of the body count involved.
Perhaps in keeping with his TV background, Crais' books tend to be highly 'visual' reads. In fact, his stories usually originate from an intriguing mental picture which the author uses as an inspirational springboard.
"My starting point for The Wanted was an image of a burglary being committed," he explains. "What came to me was a feeling of ominous dark shadows. I knew I was in an expensive high-end home, I saw a drawer being opened to reveal a collection of gleaming super-expensive Rolex watches, the kind that cost $50-60k each or more.
"A hand reached in and lifted one of the watches. In my head it's almost like a little movie, so then I see the reverse cut, the person who's lifting it out – and what I see is the face of this absolutely innocent, beautiful girl of about 15.
"But there was some sort of gleam in her eye that wasn't 'right'. That was intriguing to me, so I said, 'OK, I want to know more about her – there's something 'bad' here and I want to chase it'.
"And that's what always happens: the notion that there's something bad here, there's something painful here, is usually the launchpad for all of my novels."
While crime fiction staples like burglary, the fencing of stolen goods and good old-fashioned cold blooded murder (courtesy of a new and entertainingly unpleasant pair of hoods, Harvey and Stemms) feature in The Wanted, Elvis Cole fans can also expect their favourite good-hearted gumshoe to spend some time grappling with the generation gap between himself and his teenaged quarry.
"What this novel is about is people getting in over their heads," explains Crais, "in this case, teenagers who live in a false reality of Instagram and Twitter and what they see on TV. They lose the ability to discern reality from fantasy. It's too easy for them to commit crime without ever being able to visualise or anticipate where it might lead.
"What's great to me about the book is that [their crime] leads to something very, very awful – as is usually the case with young people doing crime."
However, younger readers will be glad to learn that Crais/Cole won't be coming down too hard on the millennial set in the new book – in fact, they're actually on the side of Generation Y.
"I actually gravitate towards younger characters," the author admits, "because, to me, there's still enormous potential there for change.
"All the novels are about some form of change. The people Elvis Cole is working with open him up in some way. I always find that's part of the hero's journey, because you want the world to have some impact on the protagonist.
"Maybe it's the optimist in me, but with the younger characters themselves, there's still the possibility of salvation – if you can catch them young enough and have enough of an impact on their lives that maybe there's a way to save them, to help them recreate themselves into someone who'll have a meaningful future as opposed to just being yet another victim of the world at large."
On the subject of the world at large, the LA author is looking forward to visiting Irish fans when he appears in conversation at the new Noireland Crime Fiction Festival in Belfast on Saturday.
"It's been a few years since I've been there, so I'm really looking forward to returning [to Belfast]," Crais enthuses. "Dave Torrans' book store No Alibis in Belfast is one of my favourite book stores on the planet. It's one of the greatest mystery book stores in the world.
"I've been to Belfast three times now and I love that store and the readers I've met. It's always been a terrific experience so I was thrilled when Noireland asked me to take part."
Robert Crais will be in conversation with Steve Cavanagh on Saturday October 28 at The Europa Hotel, Belfast, at 8pm. Tickets £9 via Noireland.com. The Wanted will be published by Simon & Schuster in June. Read an excerpt now at Robertcrais.com