Tuesday, February 15, 2011

'The Monkey's Raincoat' is Some Great PI Novel

Review: THE MONKEY'S RAINCOAT (Bantam Books 1987)
Author: Robert Crais

At Sleuthfest one year, I remember author Robert Crais giving a speech about how he published his first novel. It was a private eye novel released at a time when the word was that the private eye novel was dead. That novel, THE MONKEY'S RAINCOAT went on to win the Anthony and Macavity Awards and get nominated for the Edgar and Shamus Awards. Some dead genre, huh? :)

The book launched a successful series of mysteries featuring detective Elvis Cole (yes, Elvis) who (according to the back of the book) "quotes Jiminy Cricket and carries a .38. He's a literate, wisecracking Vietnam vet who is determined never to grow up." Wow ... looks like someone at Bantam took your basic kitchen sink approach to writing that one. In any case, some detective, huh?

Anyhow, Elvis is hired by shy, quiet Ellen Lang (or is it her slightly bossy friend, Janet Simon? no, it's Ellen) to find her missing husband, Mort, and their son, Perry. This involves many stakeouts, driving around Los Angeles, glimpses of Chicanos, encounters with big guys, the exchanging of banter (witty!), more stakeouts, more Chicanos, a visit to a washed up producer, a big black guy (yikes!), he's cool (ah!), Poitras (a fat cop -- more banter), girlfriends, parties, drugs, gangsters, mix-ups ... big problems ...

This book did more than live up to my expectations. I can see how in the late 1980s when it was published how this book must have blown a breath of fresh air into a genre that had been done and done again, especially in LA. Like Robert B. Parker's Spenser, Elvis is a white knight character in the tradition of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe. Ellen Lang is a woman abandoned and so incapable of handling things, at least at first, she can't even write a check without collapsing into sobs. (Keep in mind, it is the late 1980s. However, I had to suspend my disbelief just a teeny bit on that one. Even if Ellen was originally from Kansas. I mean, I know she's not in Kansas, anymore, but really? C'mon!)

Even now, though, the writing is as fresh as ever. Rather than describe, I'll quote a favorite excerpt:

"The welterweight came around the corner, firing as fast as he could pull the trigger. One of his slugs caught the doorjamb and kicked some splinters into my cheek. I shot him in the face, then shoved Ellen through the kitchen and half carried her around the house and out onto the street. The Tattooed Man popped out of the front door and fired five shots -- bapbapbapbapbap -- then dove back into the house.

"Porch lights were coming on and someone was yelling and Wang Chung was coming out over somebody's radio. I shoved Ellen into the Corvette, fired up, and ran over two garbage cans pulling away. I was shaking and my shirt was wet with sweat and I wasn't having a great deal of luck seeing past the little silver flashes that bobbed around in front of my eyes. I drove. Slow. Steady. Just trying to get away from there. I think I ran over a dog."

Okay, you get the idea. And that's not even the wisecracking part, okay? Because that's there in abundance. Oh, plus the parts with the cat. They're priceless.

And, of course, there's Elvis' partner, Joe Pike, the totally awesome quiet, but deadly ex-Marine with an occasional thing for lipstick (don't ask -- read the book) whose office has no furniture. Some partner.

Needless to say, the story builds up to a highly suspenseful and nail-biting finish. (I'm surprised my fingers weren't reduced to bloody stumps.)

And, in the end, even if Elvis never grows up, it seems at least one of his clients might be able. :) Wow, some story!

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