In a previous article (about ‘The Fourth Protocol’ by Frederick Forsyth), I had promised to write about the on-the-edge, thrill-a-minute detective thriller, and about Robert Crais, who is one of my favourites in that genre. So today, I will write to you about The Monkey’s Raincoat, my favourite novel by Crais, which introduced the protagonists, Elvis Cole and Joe Pike to the world.
Timid, hesitant Ellen Lang’s husband and nine-year-old son have gone missing, and she is worried. She and her friend Janet Simon visits LA private investigator Elvis Cole, to help find him. Cole takes the case – one cannot be too much of a chooser in this detective lark, but he anticipates this to be one of those standardfare infidelity suits. The hunch is further strengthened when he hears that Mort, Lang’s husband, had a girlfriend, Kimberley Marsh. Mort Lang is a Hollywood agent by profession, and was perhaps mixed up with a shady bunch of people. Nevertheless, the case is nothing out of the ordinary just yet.
Next, Mort Lang is found by the police, shot dead in his car. Ellen Lang is kidnapped, and nothing is quite as straightforward as it seems. The dark side of Hollywood, not visible to the common man, opens up to Cole and his associate, Joe Pike. The drugs, the sex, the mobsters, and the murder.
The name of the novel has confused many. It’s derived from a haiku by the Japanese poet Matsuo Basho.
“Winter downpour; Even the monkey needs a raincoat”
When real trouble (a winter downpour) hits the individual (the monkey), shelter and protection (a raincoat) is needed. Elvis Cole, therefore, is the monkey’s raincoat.
Robert Crais does certainly know how to write a thriller. He writes sparse, taut prose, and excels in writing action sequences. He knows how to build up the suspense, and he knows how to hold back enough so as not to make it a circus show. The dialogues are very good, and the characters are built to last.
Elvis Cole is the fearless, wisecracking hardboiled PI prototype, and while predictable, he checks all the boxes for an enduring leading man. Pike, Cole’s associate, is the mysterious, almost comical hard-man act, in a way reminiscent of Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men. The other characters too are fleshed out well, which is a rarity for a thriller.
The more cerebral detective fiction readers have long been ambivalent towards the detective thriller. It certainly has the most ‘commercial’ elements within it, among the different detective genres. The detection is important, sure, but not as important as the thrill. In my opinion, though, it is unfairly maligned; in a perfect world, mystery thrillers and intricate detective fiction can, and should co-exist. The only criteria should be that the writer achieves what she has set out to achieve. In this novel, Crais does it with aplomb.
(The writer is Financial Architect in angalore, whose short stories have been published in magazines in India and Singapore)