Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Review: The Watchman by Robert Crais

This is another one of the action/mystery novels by Crais, set in Los Angeles and featuring the main characters Joe Pike and Elvis Cole. Pike is a former Marine, ex-cop, occasional mercenary, and sometimes PI and troubleshooter working with Cole, a private investigator. Pike is stoic, deadly, and taciturn. Cole is garrulous, glib, and tough. The Watchman is primarily a Joe Pike novel, though it does feature Cole and several other characters, like police forensics specialist John Chen, as point of view characters.

In this novel, Pike has to repay a favor from a previous novel and accept a job protecting a spoiled rich girl who caused an auto accident that allowed her to see the face of a dangerous man wanted by the federal authorities. Attempts on her life soon follow, and continue even after Pike is assigned to protect her. But seeing as Pike is not really a bodyguard at heart, he decides that the best strategy is to hunt down the people who are pursuing the girl.

Crais does an excellent job here keeping the events moving at a brisk pace. There aren't that many surprises in terms of the plot: a few twists that don't really knock you off your feet. But the twists and turns do seem to hold up well. Pike does some very dangerous things, but he does them in a very methodical, pragmatic fashion. By surrounding Pike with other characters who are more talkative, neurotic, and witty, Crais both makes Pike's oddness stand out and shows that he can write a variety of characters.

The best part of the story is what it reveals, bit by bit, about Pike's personality and that of Larkin Barkeley, the rich girl he is protecting. Crais takes a character who, on the surface, I've seen in dozens of action movies: the close-lipped badass who you don't want to cross. But he injects him with vulnerabilities, based on Pike's own past as an abused child and his present inability to really connect to most people. This is a guy who, for all his confidence in a crisis situation, is most comfortable when he's silent and unseen. He moves through the world around him almost like a ghost, and there's a sadness to his self-imposed isolation.

It feels as though Crais thought carefully about what kinds of life experiences and mindset would be necessary to create a guy capable of the sorts of action-film deadliness that Pike emanates, and then decided to show what that sort of person would be like in and out of battle. He's not the first person to take this approach; in many ways Pike is an archetypal Warrior, the one who protects the village but cannot truly be part of it. But Crais manages to present Pike with a simple and direct style that feels effortless on the page. I find it well-crafted and an enjoyable read.

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