In Pike We Trust
Reviewed by Anthony Rainone
The Watchman, by Robert Crais, is technically the first Joe Pike novel, though fans of the author's Elvis Cole private-eye series are well-acquainted with the hard-charging former LAPD officer and worldwide mercenary. Pike is Cole's loyal friend and P.I. partner, whose devotion was poignantly made clear in The Forgotten Man (2005), as Pike held the hand of his almost-dead friend in an ICU ward. Pike's steadfast morality and single-purpose zeal is once again put to the test, this time protecting Larkin Connor Barkley, a wealthy young California socialite whose life is in danger, following a seemingly innocuous traffic accident. This reviewer has run out of superlatives to describe Crais' immense talent, but suffice it to say that The Watchman is a turbo-charged ride that further pushes its author into the stratosphere of crime-fiction immortality.
Larkin is a hot 22-year-old, suffering from lack of attention from her multibillionaire father, who's more intently focused on strengthening his family's vast empire, which includes hotel chains, airlines and oil fields. She likes to live and drive fast, and this novel's opening sequence finds the heiress racing through the nighttime streets of Los Angeles with the type of bravura only a carefree adult in a privileged life could possess.
But life has an annoying way of bitch-slapping one back to reality, and when Larkin's Aston Martin suddenly hits a silver Mercedes sedan, her life is turned upside down. The three occupants of the Mercedes survive and inexplicably flee the scene. Shortly afterwards, several attempts are made to end Larkin's mortal existence. The U.S. Department of Justice steps in, and Larkin identifies one of the occupants of the Mercedes, using DOJ photos, as Alexander Liman Meesh, a known murderer and South American drug-cartel money launderer. The other two Mercedes occupants were real-estate developers George and Elaine King, who likewise aren't anywhere to be found. The feds suspect that Meesh and the Kings had a real-estate investment scheme underway, and they figure that Meesh is behind the attacks on the willowy Ms. Barkley. The government agents seem incapable of protecting wild-child Larkin, though, and so Pike is summoned to help.
Let this reviewer be clear on one thing: NOBODY writes action sequences better than Crais, and the unfolding drama of Pike fighting off the bad guys here is sheer exhilaration. Also, nobody is better than Pike at making bad guys wish they were never born. Packing a mean Colt Python .357 Magnum with a four-inch barrel, the former marine boasts the skills and discipline that Meesh's band of South American killers lack. Pike can stand for days in a single spot, while Meesh's men have to take bathroom breaks. This contest isn't even close to being fair. Meesh does have one advantage, though: someone on the inside is leaking Larkin's location to the bad guys every time she moves to a new safe house. Waves of hired guns strike repeatedly, and it's all our man Pike can do to protect his young charge. He soon determines that their only chance at survival is to turn the tables and hunt down Meesh, before he gets them.
While last year's Two Minute Rule and other Crais standalones have proved that this immensely talented novelist has more in him than the Elvis Cole series, nonetheless it is Cole and Pike who made him his name in modern crime fiction. These two characters are emotional touchstones for Crais fans, and new books in the series are highly anticipated. But Watchman is something essentially and engagingly different, and it gives us a chance to know Joe Pike better than we did before -- to hear more about his mercenary jobs in places like Africa, his abusive father and his career as an LAPD officer. A deep understanding of police procedures -- of how cops think, breathe and react to situations -- is another bread-and-butter aspect of Crais' books, and one much on display here. Flashback passages in Watchman that depict rookie Pike being drilled by his training officer, Bud Flynn, on the realities of being an LAPD cop will feed the jones of any police enthusiast.
In the past, Elvis Cole has often relied on Joe Pike to watch his back, but this time around, it's Pike who needs the assistance of The World's Greatest Detective. Badly. Cole is still recuperating, after his encounter with a psychopath in The Forgotten Man, but won't let that stop him.
With his trademark humor and cooking skills still intact, detective Cole digs into the background of the Barkley-Meesh case, and starts to uncover inconsistencies between what the feds are saying and what the facts are revealing ("Let's stop guessing and go be detectives"). It becomes clear that Pike and Larkin have as much to fear from the Justice Department as they do from Meesh. Originally contacted by Jon Stone, a former mercenary and currently a security consultant with the U.S. military, Pike agreed to help protect Larkin Barkley only because Stone had helped Pike and Cole locate young Ben Chenier in The Last Detective (2003). Aiding the Barkley family, as well, is Pike's former LAPD training officer, Flynn. But Pike soon realizes that only Cole can be trusted, all others being potentially corrupt -- especially DOJ agents Don Pittman and Kevin Blanchette ("Bud is working on it, but who can I trust? Might be one of his people. Might even be one of the feds").
Larkin Connor Barkley is the centerpiece of this novel, and she's a delicious handful. Always a superior depicter of female characters, Crais has rendered a dense, robust personality in the lovely Larkin. Indignant at her difficult circumstances, she tries to flirt and shock Pike initially ("Do you want to watch me masturbate?"), though the morally steadfast mercenary doesn't indulge. In fact, he makes it clear to Larkin that he "is not a body guard," but is protecting her because of a higher moral obligation -- protecting the sanctity of family. Theirs is a touching relationship that grows close over time, though never intimate. The girl gets to Pike, and he shares personal things with her -- for instance, what those red arrows on his shoulders are all about ("What they mean is, you control who you are by moving forward, never back; you move forward. That's what I do"). And when Larkin faces dire mortal danger later in this novel, Joe Pike is truly scared that he will not be able to save her this time.
There is a nice integration of humor into The Watchman, especially when nervous LAPD criminalist John Chen (a serious "poontang" hunter) makes his customary appearance, and provides perhaps the most significant breakthrough in the present case. There is also a strong thematic treatment represented by the story of the dysfunctional Barkley family, inviting Pike to revisit his childhood abuse at the hands of his father, and to reassess his brotherhood with Cole, the two of them united against evil ("Cole thought, Let 'em bring it -- I got your back, too, brother"). Pike doesn't so much undergo a transformation in this novel, as he is deepened as a protagonist -- with all the edges, shadows and vulnerabilities highlighted in his character ("Pike said, 'I love you.' He ran alone in the darkness, wishing the coyotes would join him"). Joe Pike is willfully capable of inflicting pain, or killing villains without remorse ("I still hate bullies"), and the hard-edged, kick-ass warrior emerges from these pages ready to do battle with the next batch of bad guys who come along. I pity them already. | February 2007