by Robert Crais
Published by Doubleday
384 pages, 2000
Always a Tough Girl
Reviewed by Kevin Burton Smith
You think your job sucks? How'd you like to dismantle bombs for a living? That's what Carol Starkey, the hard-bitten loner heroine in Robert Crais' new stand-alone novel, Demolition Angel, does to earn her daily bread. Or at least that's what she did, until one fateful morning three years ago when, as a member of the LAPD's bomb squad, she and her partner (and lover), David "Sugar" Boudreaux, were dispatched to take apart a crude, homemade explosive device, made of a paint can packed with smokeless powder and roofing tacks. Nothing special or too difficult; it was almost routine, in fact.
And then God said,"Ha!"
The bomb not only took Boudreaux's life, it also killed Carol -- if only technically and for a few minutes. Fortunately, she was revived, but some deaths last longer than others and are beyond the curative reach of epinephrine and CPR. Ever since that day, she's been scarred physically and emotionally, and the effects of the blast are still chewing up her insides. She no longer works with the bomb squad, but she remains with the Los Angeles police, now as a detective with the Criminal Conspiracy Section, living on a diet of gin, nicotine and Tagamets, trying "to feel nothing, throwing herself into her job by day, and the numbness of alcohol by night." Because, for Carol, all that's left is her job. She lives for it, if you can call it living. And she attacks her duties with a cold, obsessive fury. "Working an investigation was like working a bomb," she muses at one point. "You had to keep your focus. You had to have a clear objective, and work to that end, even when you were drinking sweat and pissing blood."
If this sounds like macho posturing, that's because, in a way, it is. It's how Carol copes, by turning everything off, by being as stone cold as she can be. Whatever true grit is, this broad has it in spades. She's hurt and she's angry and she doesn't give anyone a break, least of all herself. Her basic philosophy? "People are assholes."
This tale's fuse is lit in its first few pages when Charlie Riggio, a former colleague of Carol's from her bomb squad days, responds to a call and is blown apart while trying to dismantle a simple pipe bomb. Carol, next up in the rotation, catches the case.
It's an uncomfortably familiar setting in which the ex-bomb tech finds herself. ("Helicopters marked ground zero the way vultures circle roadkill, orbiting over the crime scene in layers like a cake.") But she doesn't back down. This is her job now. So she assembles her team, comprising detectives Beth Marzik, a bitter, frustrated single mother, and Jorge "Hooker" Santos, quiet, gentlemanly and the office prude, and they get to work. Only to be saddled by her boss with Special Agent Jack Pell, from the Washington, D.C., office of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), who, despite Carol's objections, wants to "help." Things get even more complicated when it's discovered that the bomb was set off by remote control -- and that the target was evidently Charlie Riggio all along. At which point Pell lets slip his suspicion that the explosive might be the work of the notorious "Mr. Red," a serial bomber obsessed with making the FBI's 10-most-wanted list.
It soon becomes clear that the ATF man has a specific agenda, which threatens to undercut Carol's investigation, as well as some secrets and more than a few hidden scars of his own. And that's really the theme echoing throughout Demolition Angel -- that we all carry pains in "a heart deep down inside where we keep our secret selves." There's a whole lot of hurting going on in this book, both physically and emotionally, and much of it is tucked away, jealously guarded. Crais zeroes in on his parade of walking wounded with unerring, almost scathing, accuracy.
The pain here is almost palpable, brutal even, and eventually it can't be denied. And so, as she works the case, the past comes rushing back, blindsiding Carol Starkey.
Crais recently said that he's always believed he had "a good feel for writing women." Anybody who read his previous novel, L.A. Requiem (1999), knows the truth of that statement. In Requiem, this Southern California author not only juggled multiple viewpoints and storylines, and stretched and twisted time while still delivering a powerful yarn, but he created a truly strong and memorable female character in Samantha Dolan. A hard-drinking, rough-edged detective, Dolan stood ready at all moments to tear the world a new asshole. In many ways, Carol Starkey is Crais' second stab at shaping a Dolan-like figure. In Angel, he even throws in a sly nod to the irascible Samantha, who's become something of a legend among younger women LAPD officers like Carol. Early in the novel, Carol is sitting in a cop bar, waiting to meet Pell, having a drink and a smoke, when she recalls the entertaining story of how Dolan lead the assault on the previously male-officers-only establishment.
But Crais, laying to rest any suspicion that his crafting of an unforgettable female character like Dolan was a fluke, gives us not just one terrific woman in Angel, but two. Along with Carol, he delivers her underling, the resentful Beth Marzik, struggling to rear two kids alone, flogging Amway products on the side, desperate to keep it all together and constantly at odds with her superior. In our age of sometimes-cloying, touchy-feely Oprah-style sisterhood, it's refreshing to see two strong women characters who just don't get along. Carol's vain attempt to clear the air between them as they travel north to interview a possible witness becomes a heartbreakingly powerful scene. It's an emotional high point of the book when Marzik angrily blurts out to her boss:
"I'll tell you what I want. I want to get married. I want someone to talk to who's taller than me. I want someone in that house even if he spends all his time on the couch, and I have to bring him the beer and listen to him fart at three in the morning. I am sick of being alone, with no one for company but two kids eating crackers. Shit, I want to be married so bad they see me coming a mile away..."
This is a chilling, painful admission, all right, made all the more uncomfortable by Carol's lame attempt at comfort. The best she can offer is an ineffectual admission of her own: "I'm not very good at girl talk. I'm sorry."
Even more disturbing is what we learn from Crais about the bomb nuts in our midst, the people we read about occasionally in the news, who get their jollies by setting off explosions. Here's how Carol describes one such "chronic":
"This guy we arrested, he tells us he's been building fireworks his whole life. You know how we know it's true? He's only got three fingers on his left hand, and two on his right. He's blown them off one by one."
It's glimpses like this into a seldom-explored netherworld of crime that raise this book a giant step above the bloated pyrotechnics of cinematic cartoons such as Speed and the Die Hard series. Sure, things blow up here (they blow up real good, in fact), but that's not what Crais is after. He goes beyond the big booms to look at what sort of people would willingly work around explosives and violence for a living.
The answer to that question is a little disconcerting, for these folks are not of some special breed -- they're just like you and me. Carol, Marzik, Hooker and most of the rest of the police officers in this novel are all instantly recognizable types. For anyone who's ever worked in any sort of organization, Crais' unflinching take on office politics is startling familiar and finely rendered -- the camaraderie, the petty pride, the fragile egos, the backstabbing, the deceit and the conceit, the jockeying for position, the gripes with management, the grumbling about bad coffee. These people take apart bombs and poke around dead people, but they could just as easily be accountants or filing clerks.
But, of course, they're cops. And Crais fully exploits this fact, offering his readers a vivid, sharply scribed portrait of what it's like to work in the LAPD. All of the familiar cop lingo is here, along with the morbid humor and chronic cynicism, the territorial and jurisdictional squabbles, the macho game-playing by male and female officers and the cops' entrenched stoicism. That fight to maintain control powers an oddly affecting episode, in which Carol questions Buck Daggett, who was the late Charlie Riggio's supervisor and was on hand at the scene of his death. Daggett is in his backyard changing the oil in his Lawn Boy, upset because he's been told to take three days off. The scene, as it unfolds, is full of hard looks and denied emotion, painful and awkward for both of them. Carol asks a few routine questions about the explosion and Daggett bitches about the forced leave and the trauma counseling he has been ordered to undergo. As Carol walks away, all Buck can say is, "Thanks for not asking. You know what I mean? Everyone asks how you are, and there's nothing to say to that."
"She was always a tough girl," Crais writes of Carol Starkey early in his story. That toughness is a good thing, because this case will suck her dry before it's over. The deceptions, the betrayals, the lies and the evidence pile up. Carol's wide-ranging investigation takes her all over the place -- on lengthy drives across Southern California, to Bakersfield and the Atascadero Minimum Security Correctional Facility. It takes her, as well, onto the World Wide Web, where she visits a chat room that hosts a disturbing collection of bomb nuts and other sociopaths, perhaps including the dangerous Mr. Red. Along the way, she must come to terms with her awkward and tentative attraction to ATF agent Pell. And she ultimately has to take the biggest leap of all -- confronting her own past and facing the truth of that morning, three years ago. As Carol discovers, the truth hurts.
Demolition Angel is a hard and often bleak book, full of lives lived in not always quiet desperation. The whip-cracking, witty banter of Crais' eight Elvis Cole novels (beginning with The Monkey's Raincoat, 1987) is gone, replaced here by occasional blasts of black humor. At times, the pain and suffering seem almost relentless, fairly dripping from the pages. Yet in the end, this is a riveting and, at times, cathartic read, a bold step for Crais that bodes well both for his career and his growing number of fans.
There are a few missteps. Unfortunately -- and rather ironically -- several of the male actors in this drama pale by comparison with the fully realized figures of Carol Starkey and Beth Marzik. Although sections of Crais' story are actually told from their perspective, Jack Pell and Mr. Red never really came alive for me. Part of the reason, no doubt, can be blamed on their motives, which probably had to be left a little vague to make this swirling, tricky plot work. But those two characters are also not as well conceived as they should have been, nor are they given the depth they required in order to be memorable. While Carol finds herself torn apart, trying to deny her emotions, it sometimes seems as if Pell doesn't have any to call his own. Hooker, the quietly disapproving detective who's caught uncomfortably in the middle of the continual hissing contest between Carol and Marzik, and who's so reserved that he has to leave the room when Marzik says the word "blowjob," is similarly under-developed. He's a great character, trapped in a bit part.
The book's finale has a similarly incomplete and hasty feel about it. It seems almost a little corny, which is less than the reader might expect after such a finely tuned build-up. Still, I guarantee that nobody's going to want to put this book down in the last few chapters. It's just one hell of a story. And it could make one hell of a movie. The film rights to Demolition Angel have already been optioned by Columbia/TriStar, and Crais is working on the screenplay even as you read these words.
He has labored on behalf of Hollywood before, producing scripts for TV series such as Cagney and Lacey, L.A. Law and Hill Street Blues, for which he received an Emmy nomination. But it's his Elvis Cole novels that have scored Robert Crais the greatest acclaim, winning him a variety of mystery-writing awards, including a Shamus and an Edgar. L.A. Requiem, too, was nominated for an Edgar (in the Best Novel category), but lost out earlier this month to Jan Burke's Bones. Oh, well. After polishing off his Demolition Angel screenplay, Crais intends to start work on his ninth Cole adventure, which he promises will knock our socks off. If so, that would make three in a row. | May 2000
Kevin Burton Smith is the creator and editor of The Thrilling Detective Web Site, which is devoted to the appreciation of fictional private eyes -- hard-boiled and otherwise -- in literature, film, television and other media. He lives in Montreal and has decided not to pursue a career as a bomb tech.
Read an interview with Robert Crais.