Robert Crais: L.A. Is 'Natural Canvas' For Nightmare From murder in the Venice canals to human trafficking in the desert, Los Angeles serves as the perfect setting for Robert Crais' noir novels, starring Elvis Cole and Joe Pike, two PIs who are desperately seeking normal — both for their clients and themselves.
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Robert Crais: L.A. Is 'Natural Canvas' For Nightmare

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Robert Crais: L.A. Is 'Natural Canvas' For Nightmare

Robert Crais: L.A. Is 'Natural Canvas' For Nightmare

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Since the 1940s, Los Angeles has been synonymous with the noir mystery. You know, Raymond Chandler novels, Humphrey Bogart movies, that sort of thing.


Well, for our Crime in the City series, which looks at the work of mystery writers around the globe, we go to Los Angeles today. That's where Robert Crais creates his popular series featuring private investigator Elvis Cole.

INSKEEP: NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates spent the day with Crais to find out why this city is still the perfect canvas for the modern mystery.

KAREN GRISBY BATES, BYLINE: It's been a few decades and many books ago, but Robert Crais can tell you exactly what mystery first caught his attention.

ROBERT CRAIS: Raymond Chandler's "The Little Sister."


BATES: He was a bright 15-year-old living in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, a thousand miles away from a city known for producing fantasy the world consumes. Chandler depicted the shady side of sunny Los Angeles through the eyes of private investigator Philip Marlowe. Crais says Marlowe was the gateway drug that forever hooked him on crime fiction.

CRAIS: The way Chandler and his language portrayed Los Angeles, portrayed Philip Marlowe, lit me up the way no other fiction that I'd read prior to that had.

BATES: So it's especially satisfying for Crais when critics describe him as one of Chandler's natural descendants. But instead of the wryly laconic Marlowe, Crais' protagonist is a smart-Alec investigator named Elvis Cole.


BATES: Driving through the Venice beachfront, Crais says he wanted to give his hero a challenge.

CRAIS: In the very first book, "The Monkey's Raincoat," I say that, you know, this was not his birth name. He wasn't named Elvis when he was born. He was actually named Philip James Cole when he was born, but his mother changed his name when he was six years old.

BATES: That occurred when Philip's single party-girl mother has a blast at a Presley concert, comes home and decides to legally change his name to Elvis. Crais says the consequences of that have dogged the grown Elvis ever since.

CRAIS: That instability in his early life is something that I thought important. That's, I think, one of the reasons he is the way he is. Meaning he is trying to make sense out of the world.

BATES: Cole works with his investigating partner and best friend, Joe Pike. They're opposites. Pike is taciturn, Cole is chatty. Cole dresses in colorful Hawaiian shirts, while Pike is black and gray. Crais says Cole's job is to restore normalcy to his clients' lives.

CRAIS: He admires normal. I think in many ways Joe Pike does too. They're trying to achieve balance and normalcy because they admire it, but they don't know how to get there. That's one of the reasons they're so much fun for me to write.

BATES: Crais parks and walks to the mouth of the Venice Canals. They were built in the early 1900s. The city filled most of them just before the Depression. The remaining canals form a series of interconnected waterways lined with colorful homes and fragrant gardens. Crais points to the large locks that control the flow of water into and out of the canals. He included them in his previous book, "The Sentry."

CRAIS: Well, my notion, of course, in the book is that if there were a body floating in the canals, as the canal drained it would go downstream and be caught in the locks. And that's one of the devices I use.

BATES: As we walk along the paths lining the canals, Crais noted how tranquil the neighborhood is. Egrets fish in the reeds at the waters' edge, and the quiet is only disturbed by an occasional dog bark - a good place for things to go wrong.

CRAIS: You know, where there is peace and when there is tranquility, there's the potential for horror and nightmare.

BATES: Crais' current book, "Taken," is set all over the city and out in the desert. It focuses on human trafficking. Elvis Cole tries to help a client recover her daughter, snatched while researching the practice in preparation for an expose. Then Cole gets taken while trying to rescue her. Crais says trafficking flourishes here because Los Angeles is a magnet. It offers people the hope of reinvention,

CRAIS: People come to L.A. because they're chasing that dream of a better life. That's why I came here.

BATES: And Robert Crais has prospered here. L.A. was always in Crais' future. He was so certain that writing would be his life, he dropped out of Louisiana State University a semester short of graduation, packed his car and drove to Hollywood. His ear for dialogue got him work on television scripts in the '70s and '80s. He's credited with writing on "L.A. Law," "Cagney and Lacey," and "Hill Street Blues." But novels, mysteries, always tugged at him. And eventually he ditched a lucrative television career to write books full-time. He's never looked back.

He's now written 18 novels, most of them part of the Cole-Pike series, many of them on national bestseller lists. That's made Crais very comfortable financially, and kind of famous.

RACHEL HANAK: The Robert Crais pizza has onion, garlic, mushrooms, salami, pepperoni and Italian sausage. It's like a flavor explosion in your mouth.

BATES: That's waitress Rachel Hanak at the Sidewalk Cafe on the Venice boardwalk. They name a lot of their dishes after famous writers. Crais is on the menu with John Irving, Tennessee Williams and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. - glory and grease.

After Venice, Crais drives far up into the Hollywood Hills to Runyon Canyon. Along the way he points out the kind of house Elvis Cole lives in: a glass-front A-frame with a panoramic view of the Los Angeles Basin. Crais glimpsed a house like this when he first moved to L.A.. It became something he could aspire to.

CRAIS: And many years later, when I created Elvis Cole, I thought why not give him the house that had meant so much to me? So I gave him an A-frame house.

BATES: He also places Cole and Pike on regular runs through the hills we're walking now. The view above the city is stunning. Crais gazes fondly on the houses and apartments, the palm trees and the skyscrapers' glass windows winking in the distance. L.A. can be a hard city, but it will always be home for Robert Crais.

CRAIS: There's the Hollywood sign, there's Griffith Observatory, there's the great, amazing Los Angeles basin. Its 465 square miles of insanity, and the best food on the planet.

BATES: And it's a never-ending source of inspiration for one of modern crime's most admired writers.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.


INSKEEP: Four hundred sixty square miles of insanity. You can read an excerpt from "Taken" and get a sneak peek of the newest Crais novel at

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

GREENE: And I'm David Greene.

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