Robert Crais was packing for a 12-city national book tour and things were "hectic," he said by phone from his Santa Monica home. "But they should be hectic; that's a good thing," he said.
In the novelist's new thriller, "The Suspect" (Putnam, $28, 320 pages), LAPD cop Scott James is angry, confused and in pain. Eight months earlier, in a case of "collateral damage," a group of masked men firing assault rifles killed his partner, Stephanie, and left James nearly dead.
Now he's emotionally damaged and deemed unfit for duty.
Maggie the German shepherd has a similar story. The retired military working dog was shot by a sniper in Afghanistan and her handler was killed.
Scott and Maggie both are damaged goods, with debilitating wounds and post- traumatic stress syndrome. They meet at a K-9 training school, bond as a "pack of two" and set out to uncover the identities of the masked shooters.
Oddly, James' commanding officers don't want him near the case. Why?
Crais is best-known for his 14-title Elvis Cole-Joe Pike thriller series. He also has written five stand-alone titles, including "Hostage," which became a 2005 movie starring Bruce Willis.
Crais appeared for the Bee Book Club in 2003. Visit him at www.robertcrais.com.
"Suspect" is a major departure from your usual work.
True, it's not an Elvis-and-Joe book. It's a cop book for sure, but the real story is how this man and this dog need each other in order to heal. The big question is how my crime-oriented readership is going to take it. I hope they can embrace Maggie the way I have.
Researching and writing the book made you something of an expert on service dogs, and Maggie certainly comes across as genuine.
I didn't want her to be a four-legged human wearing a black-and-tan jacket, or a telepathic cartoon animal. Like, "Go get the car keys, Maggie!" and she runs for the car keys.
Word is that "Suspect" is the first in a series. If that's so, will Elvis and Joe take a break?
Elvis and Joe are my guys and there are plenty more stories to write about them. I'm working on one now.
I approached "Suspect" as a stand-alone, but I fell in love with Maggie, and I loved writing her scenes. If I can figure an appropriate story, I'll definitely bring her back. I want to return to that head space with her. This turned out to be the most emotional book I've written.
It grew out of my trying to figure out why I was having such difficulty getting another dog.
You're referring to Yoshi, your Akita?
Yes, he passed away 15 years ago, at age 12. I've always had dogs in my life, so everybody kept asking, "When are you going to get another dog?"
I simply couldn't because every time I thought about it, I would wrestle with this big spike of disloyalty I felt.
Where did you go from there?
I was trying to understand my feelings. What was making me feel so disloyal to Yoshi that I couldn't bear to replace him? That was the impetus I had for digging into human-canine bonding. That led to the subject of military working dogs and their relationship with their handlers. All this was my own healing process, which is what I needed and why I created Maggie and wrote the book.
What about your field work?
I spent a lot of time with the LAPD canine unit. The handlers have incredible relationships with their dogs, which are primarily Belgian Malinois smaller than German shepherds and with a longer service life.
It's stunning to watch the dogs train at the top of their game, where they make complicated decisions on their own.
What makes it possible for service dogs to reach that level of sophistication?
Dogs do what they do for two reasons to please us or to save us. Where does the "save" part come from?
In their DNA, dogs are pack animals, and in the pack there's an alpha, the leader. The pack wants to make their alpha happy, and are also designed to protect their alpha.
Maggie and Scott live together, eat together and play together, and become a pack of two. Scott's natural place (in that relationship) is as the alpha, with Maggie protecting him.
Has writing the book brought you closer to getting another big dog?
It's made me more accepting of the notion that I could get another dog without being disloyal to Yoshi. It helped me understand what I was feeling, and why.
I think I've made my peace a lot.