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.
John Cassavetes as Johnny Stacatto
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."
* * *
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.