'A Dangerous Man'

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Author Robert Crais launches new Elvis Cole/Joe Pike novel

By Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

For New York Times best-selling novelist Robert Crais, who grew up in a blue-collar family, there was no model for becoming a professional writer.

“When I was a kid – a young adult – to become something like a writer or pursue any kind of creative endeavor, there was no model for that. That was virtually a pipe dream – it was unknown, magical, mystical. You had to get a real job and do real things. My family worked in oil refineries or as police officers,” recalled Crais (whose last name rhymes with “grace”), 66, of Los Angeles.

So he studied mechanical engineering at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, capital of the Pelican State.

“I figured I’d become an engineer and work for one of the oil companies,” he said.

But Crais didn’t want to do that. He wanted to write stories for a living, having grown up reading any and all sorts of fiction, including Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, John Steinbeck, and Stan Lee. Buying a secondhand paperback of Chandler’s “The Little Sister” really inspired his imagination.

“I’ve always loved fiction and movies and television. I was a voracious reader as a child – I started with comic books – and graduated to novels,” he said. “I love the way stories can transport you from this world into another world – the world of the story. Somewhere along the way, I wanted to tell my own. That just stayed with me. I enjoy doing that more than anything else.”

Crais completed the Clarion Workshop, a six-week program, for aspiring science-fiction/fantasy writers, when it was at Michigan State University. The fact that Crais even sold a few short stories while still in college gave him the hope that he could become a professional writer, so he moved to L.A. before finishing his degree to write for TV.

However, he didn’t have any contacts in the industry. He didn’t know anyone in the business. He didn’t have any idea what to do.

According to Crais, back in the 1970s, directors would print up dozens of copies of a script of an episode of a TV show. When done, a good portion of them either ended up in the trash or at used bookstores for $1. From there, he learned how to write scripts.

He broke into television writing for the detective series “Baretta.” From there, he wrote for “Quincy M.E,” “L.A. Law,” “The Equalizer,” “The Twilight Zone,” “Cagney & Lacey,” and “Hill Street Blues.” In fact, he was nominated for an Emmy for his work on “Hill Street Blues,” something he called “exciting” and “gratifying,” given the caliber of writers on that beloved police drama, such as creator Steven Bochco, who would go on to create “NYPD Blue,” another iconic police drama.

“I’m like a Trivial Pursuit question for 1980s television. I had the good fortune to write for some excellent television series,” said Crais.

If Clarion was his undergraduate degree, writing for television was his master’s and doctorate.

“In television, I learned so much working with actors, writers, and producers – really, really talented writers and producers. It’s very collaborative,” said Crais. “It really taught me how to write. It led to my style and prose work. All of that was an enormous contribution to the success I enjoyed.”

However, his first love was novels and short stories, so he tried his hand at them.

“I enjoyed my television years very much. I learned an enormous amount,” explained Crais. “I wanted to write my own thing in my own fashion, so I decided to follow my muse (and write novels). I also loved crime fiction. I had these characters and stories I wanted to tell, and novels seemed to be the best way to tell them.”

His first novel “The Monkey’s Raincoat” – which won the Anthony Award for Best Paperback Original 1988, the Macavity Award for Best First Novel 1988, and was nominated for the Edgar and Shamus Awards – introduced ex-Ranger Elvis Cole and his partner Joe Pike.

“A Dangerous Man” is his 18th Cole/Pike novel. In it, Pike goes to the bank. When he’s finished with his transaction, he goes out to his Jeep the same time Isabel Roland, the teller who assisted him, goes to lunch. Out of the blue, two men kidnap Isabel and Pike rescues her.

The case should be open and shut. However, Isabel’s kidnappers are murdered, then she vanishes. Cole joins Pike to uncover the truth, which they learn involves corporate whistleblowing the Witness Relocation Program.

“(The idea for this book) came to me as an image,” said Crais. “The image was a young woman, who’s innocent and oblivious to her own innocence, is suddenly grabbed by these dangerous, threatening, horrible bad guys. This makes no sense to her. They’ve mistaken her for someone else completely. That was all I had.”

Crais paired this idea with his two protagonists.

“Joe’s the guy you want in your corner when there’s overwhelming odds against you,” said Crais. “He’ll stop at nothing to save her. That’s the kind of story I wanted to tell.”

When writing, Crais outlines his books, a holdover from his TV days. He’ll take 3-4 months to figure out his characters’ backstories before actually writing the first page.

“I need to know the beginning, the middle, and the end before I start writing. I need to know at least 80 percent of the story,” he explained. “I leave room for movement, but once I know the story, I’m off and running.”

For Crais, the best and worst part of being a novelist is the same thing: writing.

“I love being swallowed up by the story and writing it when I’m in the scene with the characters and the narrative,” he said. “What they’re feeling, I’m feeling. I love that vicarious experience. When you’re in tune with what you’re writing, there’s no better feeling in the world. For me, it’s pure storytelling.”

However, there are days when that doesn’t happen.

“Those are hard days,” said Crais. “As a professional writer, you sit there everyday and write. There are no days off. You have to work and force your way through it. You write it, you revise it, but you don’t stop. You never stop.”

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