Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Monkey's Raincoat - Robert Crais

Here’s a brief run down on Elvis Cole, the private eye super hero of The Monkey’s Raincoat (1987), for those of you unfamiliar with him. He’s a Viet Nam vet. He practices yoga, tai chi and tae kwan do. His smoldering good looks somehow manage to remind women of both John Cassavetes from 1967 or --of all people-- Andy Summers of The Police. Two men who I think look nothing alike. Let’s see…what else…He can cook up some interesting gourmet dishes on a whim. He’s fascinated with Walt Disney animated movies especially Pinocchio (a clock of the boy/puppet and a couple of Jiminy Cricket figurines decorate his office) and Peter Pan visions of whom helped him survive the horrors of war. That part is still puzzling to me.  I sort of understand the metaphor of the boy who never grew up applied to soldiers, but it seems awfully weird notion to me for such a tough guy. Maybe I missed something there. And of course he’s a wise acre of the first class.  Every other line of dialogue is a smartass comeback or insult. So he just reminded me of so many other characters – Spenser with his love of gourmet cooking, Marvel comic book superheroes with the martial arts stuff, and (name any American private eye character of the past fifty years) with his smart aleck comments.  The book only got interesting for me when Joe Pike, Cole’s partner in the private eye agency, stepped out of the background and took on a meaty supporting role.

For the first five or six chapters of The Monkey’s Raincoat (1987) I just couldn’t figure out what was so special about this book. Why was this book included as one of "The Century's 100 Favorite Mysteries"? Never mind that the label given that list is hyperbolic just by itself. I saw nothing really groundbreaking or even original in the book. In fact, the whole thing reminded me of hundreds of TV shows I’ve seen in my lifetime. On a whim I went to Robert Crais’ website to verify that this was not only the first Elvis Cole book but also his first novel and then I discovered something not altogether surprising. Robert Crais spent close to ten years writing scripts for US TV cop shows before turning to novels. Baretta, Cagney & Lacey, Quincy, Miami Vice and a couple of others show up on his long resume. Aha! So that’s why the book seemed just like a TV show. Smart aleck dialogue, brand name dropping like some kind of verbal product placement gone wild, jokes based on TV pop culture, and two gratuitous sex scenes one of which seems completely out of character for the two people involved. With all the 1970s TV commercial references -- Virginia Slims cigarettes, the Shell Answer Man, Mr. Goodwrench, the Löwenbräu beer jingle "Here's to Good Friends" -- I thought the book might have been written a decade earlier and polished up over time. Crais assures us on his website that he started the book in 1985. I'm not so sure. Buried in all the distracting TV references, Sunday newspaper advertising brand names, and truly lame jokes is a compactly told story with typical macho fight scenes and brutal violence. I began to see what Crais intended this to be. It turns out to be a repackaging of the old Gold Medal paperback originals. Sex and smart aleck humor and violent fist fights and lots of bloody gunplay.

Elvis Cole...uh...rather
John Cassavetes as Johnny Stacatto
It’s a find-the-husband plot with mousy wife Ellen Lang being manipulated into seeking out the help of a private eye by her bossy loud mouthed (but of course irresistibly sexy) best friend Janet Simon. The story takes place in Los Angeles and Hollywood, USA is featured front and center for most of the book. Mort Lang, the missing husband, is a talent agent with a roster of D list actors and actresses as his clients. The rest of the cast includes a sleazy drug dealing movie producer, his bodyguard hired because of his extracurricular activities, an airhead starlet with a killer figure, and her hot tempered boyfriend equally stupid and alluring. There are a couple of cops, both LAPD and FBI, too. And because this is the 80s when cocaine was almost a required plot feature of a crime novel we get Domingo “Dom” Duran, a comic book drug lord obsessed with toreo (that’s bullfighting to all us ignoramuses) as his guiding principle and his army of trigger happy thugs and goons beating, torturing and murdering on his orders. Duran’s missing two kilogram package of “pure” cocaine serves as the Macguffin in a subplot that will connect the Hollywood characters with the gangsta characters.

I wasn’t thrilled with the plot at all. Never was enthralled with fistfights (or martial arts fights, I guess) that go on for paragraphs and graphic depictions of shoot outs that describe where all the bullets go and what damage they do to human bodies. And Elvis just doesn't do it for me. At least not in his debut. A poor man's Philip Marlowe (Crais even makes a White Knight reference) with too much sarcasm and too little restraint. It was the slow (but predictable) transformation of Ellen Lang from trampled housewife to vigilante Mom that kept me reading to the final pages. Oh! and the introduction of Joe Pike in the action filled final pages. Even though he's Cole's partner Pike is a background character, a near cipher, in the opening chapters, but he comes into his own in the finale. Pike is the best character in the book. Mysterious, brooding, taciturn and dangerous. None of his dialogue contains a single ounce of wiseacre humor. He gives the book its much needed gravitas and makes a unexpected bond with Ellen Lang.

Interestingly, Crais says on his website that if he were to recommend any book as a place to start LA Requiem, his eighth book, is the one he’d like people to read first. The Monkey’s Raincoat is definitely the work of a rookie novelist: uneven prose style, a tendency to indulge in sophomoric humor, formulaic basic plot, cookie cutter characters. In an effort to try to reinvent the private eye he ends up emulating lots of well known crime writers. And he doesn’t think twice about letting his influences show. Elvis Cole has Valdez Is Coming and other Elmore Leonard titles on his shelves, books we learn he returns to again and again. Those familiar with Leonard’s violent jokey crime novels and westerns may find themselves drawing comparisons between the two writers. Even before the reference I thought Crais was most like Leonard. However, in this outing Crais doesn’t come close to inventing characters as original and quirky as Leonard’s though he does manage to spin a few artful sentences.

There was enough here for me to seek out one of the later books featuring Joe Pike. I'd like to believe that Crais is right when he says, "I am intensely proud of those early novels — but my newer books are richer, broader in scope, and way more complex in structure, so I believe them to be more representative of the work I am doing today."

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I read this as part of Rich Westwood's "Crime of the Century" reading challenge for which each month we read a book published in a specific year. July's year was 1987.

12 comments:

  1. Did not appeal much to me too, John. The characters were for the most part predictable and Ellen Lang's transformation simply did not ring true.

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  2. I'm with you on this one - I read it, quite enjoyed it, but could never see what all the fuss was about it. I didn't read any more, thinking I had given him his chance: I'll be interested to see what you make of his later ones, see if I should be reading them. I bet you are right about his writing it earlier, I see that quite often in books.

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  3. John: I have read most of the Elvis Cole mysteries. I will disagree on this one. I thought Elvis was genuinely funny. I found him light hearted and a change from the dour sleuths I find so often in crime fiction. It this book I thought Joe Pike was a "good" character. I like the earlier Cole mysteries better. In particular, I find Joe's violence overwhelming in later mysteries.

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  4. Very helpful review, John. I have read this book and the 2nd one but that was probably ten years ago. I was curious how you would like this. I have no. 3 and I will probably go ahead and read that one, but may also hop ahead later to LA Requiem and see if I like that better.

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  5. I'm in complete disagreement with you on this, John. I love the Elvis and Joe books beginning at the beginning. I'm not saying they're all equally good, but on the whole, this is my favorite detective series. I find Elvis endearing and funny and competent. (I'm very big on competence.) I'm in awe of Joe Pike. These two make one whole far as I'm concerned - that's what the books are really about: friendship. While I consider LA REQUIEM, Crais' masterpiece of the series, I wouldn't recommend reading it first (even if Robert does), since, to my mind, there is much the reader would miss by not being familiar with the depth of Elvis and Joe's friendship. It's about complete trust between two men, something Robert writes about beautifully. I always say that Elvis and Joe are as close as two men can be without having sex. There's no other series that has this kind of connection for me.

    Some of the books have laugh out loud moments that I can actually remember - you know how that goes with old lady memory. A memorable moment from THE MONKEY'S RAINCOAT that I remember even to this day: .Elvis goes in to the cop shop to be questioned on the murder case he's involved in and as he walks through the station, he notices the sexy female cop whom all the other cops have been eyeing and trying to date. He goes in to be interviewed and comes out quite a bit later. The female cop says something like, "I thought you weren't going to talk." Elvis says, deadpan, "They broke my spirit." The cop gives him her phone number while all the other guys groan. Well, I mean, how could she not? He makes her laugh.

    "They broke my spirit." SO funny. So typical Elvis. I also love when he answers the phone, "Hello, world's greatest detective speaking." I can't help it, it just makes me smile.

    Later in several other books, there are moments just as low-key funny. And some not so low-key as in the restaurant scene in FREE FALL. Then there's Joe Pike reaction to the kids who hire Elvis to find their father in INDIGO SLAM.

    There are also very serious moments - the scene in LA LULLABY near the end when a bunch of bad guys hunt Elvis and Joe in the woods - some of Robert's best writing and this was in an early book. Terrific stuff. Then the scene in FREE FALL when Elvis and Joe break out of jail. Fabulous. Occasionally I go back and just reread my favorite bits from the books and each time I'm delighted.

    In my opinion, I would read LA LULLABY, FREE FALL, INDIGO SLAM and LA REQUIEM, to get to really know Elvis and Joe. If that doesn't do it, then there's no hope for you. :)

    Sorry I ran on and on, but my affection for this series knows no limit.

    I also love the later Joe Pike books (told from Pike's point of view). But no one will ever replace Elvis. Sometimes I think that Pike wouldn't exist if it weren't for Elvis. But there, don't get me started again...

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    1. Oh I knew you would chime in, Yvette! :^D You're right -- there are great moments. The one you mention made me smile. I also liked the bit where he pretends to be a delivery guy in order to gain entry into an exclusive apartment complex. But overall I was not impressed by one of your favorite fictional characters in his debut. I'm willing to give these books a second try. I liked a lot of the book, but this just didn't Wow me as I expected it to. I think it's overpraised for it amounts to. People like it for its humor, I get that. It's just not my kind of humor. The whole plot just reeked of TV crime shows gone over the top. I wanted something different, not something familiar.

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  6. Never mind the humor, John, though it is attractive (at least to me). It's about the friendship. THAT'S what is best about this series. And I must say that when Robert is writing about Joe and Elvis' more serious doings, he's just as effective. Near the end of LA REQUIEM he breaks my heart. Oh, I do want you to like this series. Don't give up. Begin with the titles I mentioned. Or work backwards as Robert suggests. This guy is really doing terrific work, John.

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    1. I got a glimmer of that friendship here. There is a discussion of that intimacy you refer to in THE MONKEY'S RAINCOAT. It's almost offhand in an exchange of dialogue Elvis has with Ellen Lang. My sister-in-law used to talk about how a certain type of man is drawn to the military in order to seek out that kind of nonsexual male intimacy because it seems completely unattainable in the real world. Some men need to be with men in order to grow and they develop genuine love for each other not just loyalty or respect. She described how one of her sons when he became a Marine had a closer, deeper, almost profound relationship with his colleagues than with any of his family including her.

      I do plan to read a few more of Crais' books. I didn't completely slam this book, you know. I was just harsher on it than most people would be.

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    2. I'm convinced that your sister-in-law is right on the money, John. I hope you won't give up on Crais. I suppose I'll wait and see. We can still be friends no matter what. Maybe. :)

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  7. "brand name dropping like some kind of verbal product placement gone wild, jokes based on TV pop culture, [...] "

    When I see writing like this I blame Stephen King. His books, especially from the 70s and 80s were glutted with those kind of references.

    But to be fair, in his case, he was working to tie supernatural plots to some kind of day-to-day reality.

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  8. I've had this one on the TBR, along with LA REQUIEM, for years and years - must dislodge one of his books (I used to like his stuff on TV in the 80s) - thanks for the detailed review John - hard not to want to start with this one but I'll make sure I try a later one too, as you suggest (when I type, I listen ... sic)

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  9. I've been meaning to get around to MONKEY'S RAINCOAT for years, as I'm trying to read the great modern detective novels. This one turns up on lots of lists. Your criticisms seem valid although I think I might like that retro TV vibe. And I'm intrigued by this relationship between Cole and Joe Pike--I wonder how it compares to, say, Robicheaux and Cletus Purcel in James Lee Burke's novels or Easy Rawlins and Mouse in Walter Mosley's. Love that stuff!

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