Once in a Blue Moon: Robert Crais' The Sentry

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Author Robert Crais at a book signing

Despite our American fixation on originality, once in a blue moon it happens that two major artists are creatively joined at the hip. An older artist creates a body of work so rich and provocative that a younger artist comes along and uses it in a new way. Although it’s something like creative male bonding, we don’t have a good way to describe this relationship, because the younger artist goes beyond imitation and becomes a powerful figure in his own right. This is what happened when Bruce Springsteen became so intensely engaged with Bob Dylan that he became America’s poet laureate—a title that Dylan never wanted.

In crime fiction this same unnameable relationship applies between two writers named Robert—the late Robert B. Parker and Robert Crais.  What happened was that Crais took over Parker’s Spenser series—arguably the greatest and richest series in detective fiction—and made it his own. He took all the conventions of the Spenser series, and translated them from Boston to LA. In the process he transformed them and made them his own, very much as Springsteen took Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” and turned it into “Born to Run.”

Crais’ version of Spenser is named Elvis Cole; like Spenser he’s both a wise aleck and a compassionate man. His sidekick, the counterpart to Spenser’s Hawk, is Joe Pike, a tough, silent, driven former Special Forces guy. There was so much potential in the Spenser/Hawk relationship that Crais worked it beautifully in the first book in the series, The Monkey’s Raincoat, and especially in his masterpiece LA Requiem.

Eventually, though, Crais ran into the same problem that Parker ran into—the limitations of having the detective tell his own story in first-person narration. Parker dealt with this problem by creating a new character in his Jesse Stone series, which uses third-person narration. For whatever reason Crais has not chosen to do this. Rather, he has split off Joe Pike as a character in his own right, and uses third-person narration, as in his latest, The Sentry.

The Sentry is an odd novel, then, because Crais has to give us insights into the thoughts of his main character—that’s what third-person narration is for—but Joe Pike is a mysterious character who doesn’t think very much. Elvis always describes him externally, just as Spenser always describes Hawk externally. In the Spenser novels we never learn where Hawk lives, or what he thinks. In The Sentry, though, we find out where Pike lives, but rarely what he thinks. As a result we get a lot of narration that goes like this: “Pike phoned his gun shop…Pike said...Pike explained.” We miss the cocky, witty patter of Elvis Cole yet we don’t have anything that’s the equivalent of Jesse Stone’s brooding self-awareness.

The plot, though, is terrific. It’s one of those “LA is lala-land, and things aren’t what they seem” plots. A woman does Pike wrong, and he doesn’t know what to do about it. Still, Crais is such a terrific writer that even when technical difficulties put him off his game a little, he still turns out a novel that makes for wonderful summer reading.

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JIm Curtis has a background in Russian studies, and is fascinated with both high culture and popular culture. He just finished a book on Dylan, and covers the book beat for The Morton Report.

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