By Beth Terrell
I've been reading (that is, when I can squeeze a few minutes out of my day) a book called The Forgotten Man by Robert Crais. Before that I read Chasing Darkness and The Watchman, also by Crais, and okay, I admit it, I've been bitten by the green-eyed monster. Bitten badly. It's not that Crais is young, hot, and immensely successful. (I don't begrudge him that, really I don't.) It's that he's so darn good.
In protagonist Elvis Cole (the self-proclaimed World's Greatest Detective), Crais has created a hero with depth and heart. As for sidekick Joe Pike...well, let me just say, "I heart Joe Pike." With Pike, Crais turns the stereotype of the psychotic sidekick on its ear. Yes, Joe is the strong, silent type, and yes, he is capable of becoming a killing machine, but he also has a strong moral code and a rich emotional landscape. Pike is a contradiction--a genuinely good man who can kill without flinching to protect the innocent or right a wrong. Pike is no Dexter. He has a conscience and emotions, and in The Watchman, he steps out of his role as sidekick and into the spotlight. Would the book have worked as well had I not come to care for Pike over the course of the Elvis Cole books? Though the book stands alone, it is enriched by my previous understanding of Pike's character. It was also interesting to see Elvis through Pike's eyes; usually it's the other way around.
In The Forgotten Man, Cole receives a call from a police officer who says a murdered man has just claimed, with his dying breath, that Elvis Cole is his son. Cole, who never knew his father but has never stopped hoping to find him, is drawn into the investigation. We learn a lot about Cole in this book--the boy he once was and the man he has come to be. We see his loneliness and his longing for the woman who left him because she thought his lifestyle put her child in danger, and we ache for the other good woman who loves him but is unable to make him see it. We also feel how much Cole wishes for a family like the one he never had. Meanwhile, as the pages turn, we are introduced to the psychotic young man who is planning Cole's horrific death, and the suspense creeps higher and higher. Did I mention that this guy is good?
So here I am, sucking up everything I can learn about how he does it--pacing, description, character, the whole shebang--and hoping I have what it takes to make it in this field, that people will one day feel about my characters the way they feel about Elvis Cole and Joe Pike.
What's the point of all this? First, if you like suspense novels and you haven't read Crais, run, do not walk, to your nearest bookstore and stock up. (The first book in the series is The Monkey's Raincoat. It's a good book, but Crais just gets better with time.)
Second, we can learn a lot from the writers we admire.
Third, when the green-eyed monster rears its ugly head and makes us doubt ourselves and our talent, sometimes the best thing to do is acknowledge it, wish the object of the monster's attention well, and just move on. And then? Well, then, I go to my trusty bookshelf and pull out a special book chosen expressly for this purpose. Not a terrible book by any means, but something just bad enough to make me smile and say, "Hmm. Maybe I can make it at this writing thing after all."