Author Robert Crais is his own best character

Discussing the ending of his new book, Robert Crais said: “For me, it has a lot of heart on many different levels.”
Discussing the ending of his new book, Robert Crais said: “For me, it has a lot of heart on many different levels.” Courtesy of Penguin-Random House

Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald helped pioneer the L.A.-based crime novel in the 1930s and 1940s, but Robert Crais, Michael Connelly and James Ellroy have owned the subgenre for the past 30 years.

Crais’ signature character is L.A. private eye Elvis Cole – “the world’s greatest detective” – but far more menacing is his former black-ops mercenary Joe Pike. Cole and Pike are partners of sorts in a detective agency, immersed in the violent vortex of the Southern California crime scene.

Crais’ new novel, his 20th, is “The Promise,” the 16th in the Cole-Pike series and one with a big twist: Joining Elvis and Joe are characters from some of Crais’ past books. LAPD K-9 officer Scott James and his German shepherd, Maggie, are from 2013’s stand-alone, “Suspect,” while Jon Stone is a former Delta Force operator turned military contractor who had minor roles in four novels.

In this adventure, Crais has populated the stage with an unusually large cast, crafting a tableau of many moving yet well-orchestrated parts. The curtain opens in Echo Park, where Cole is searching for a woman who has embezzled a half-million dollars from her company and vanished. Within a few pages, a man is murdered, the killer escapes and a houseful of military munitions is discovered. The case moves from LAPD jurisdiction to involve the FBI and Homeland Security. Meanwhile, beneath the surface, Cole and Pike discover that things aren’t at all how they appear.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Crais was a scriptwriter who contributed to such hit TV shows as “Hill Street Blues,” “Miami Vice” and “L.A. Law.” His 2001 stand-alone “Hostage” became a 2005 movie starring Bruce Willis. Crais lives in Santa Monica and has appeared for the Bee Book Club. Visit him at “The Promise” is on sale now (Putnam, $28, 416 pages).

Q: You brought some of your past characters into the Cole-Pike dynamic.

A: After 20 books set in Los Angeles, I think of my literary landscape as a place where any of my characters have the potential to cross paths. I knew I wanted Elvis (to encounter) Scott and Maggie at about the time I was finishing “Suspect.” For fun, I would spin off notions of how they might meet, even the idea of Maggie and Elvis’ (cantankerous) cat coming face to face (which they do).

Q: Jon Stone is in there, too.

A: He’s the friend of Joe Pike, and they’ve worked together before. I love how complicated Jon is – the strutting, cocky guy who has great depth. His involvement grew organically, but I did not foresee how important he would become to this story.

Q: “The Promise” has an unusual dual ending.

A: I didn’t know that was going to be the ending (nor) what Jon Stone was going to do. But when I realized how the book had to end and I wrote it, I was blubbering like a baby. For me, it has a lot of heart on many different levels.

Q: You’ve taken a new approach by arranging the chapters according to the characters’ points of view, including Maggie’s.

A: That’s because it’s a large canvas and I wanted readers to get a taste of each of the characters’ worlds. I worked very hard to fit all those parts together in a seamless way. Before I’m a writer, I’m a reader, and I tried to deliver exactly the kind of experience that I as a reader want to have.

Q: “Suspect” turned Maggie into a favorite among readers in general.

A: I had a large audience before Maggie, but people fell in love with her, and she generated an absolutely unexpected new aspect of audience – people who don’t read thrillers but who love dogs. Word spread from thriller readers to dog lovers, who told other dog lovers. I’m a fortunate guy.

Q: There has always been a lot of behind-the-scenes police work in your books, but especially in “The Promise.”

A: The LAPD has been super-supportive and has granted me enormous access, which makes the fiction more involving and realistic. I think I’ve earned a good reputation with them over a 28-year career.

Q: If you could go back and re-edit “The Promise,” what changes would you make?

A: I have to stop myself from picking up a pen (and editing) when I go back to the earlier books. It’s still too early for me to tell (with “The Promise”) because I’m still hot and volatile about it. When I cool off in a couple of years, I’ll see all the mistakes, and I’ll have to live through that trauma. We writers are good at driving ourselves crazy.

Q: You’re working on the next book?

A: Yes, Joe Pike will be the pilot to Elvis Cole’s co-pilot, and Jon Stone will have a very large role. I really love writing the Joe books, which are completely different from the Elvis books because of the unique way Joe sees the world.

Q: Will Joe Pike ever take off his sunglasses?

A: If he did, you and I wouldn’t live to tell about it.

Allen Pierleoni: 916-321-1128, @apierleonisacbe