Robert Crais,
The Monkey's Raincoat
(Bantam, 1987)

Elvis Cole is a private investigator with a Pinocchio fixation, a loveable ego and a burning need to do the right thing. The Monkey's Raincoat was his first outing, and it was an impressive debut that won his creator a Macavity Award for Best First Novel of the Year.

The story starts with a missing husband and son and it soon becomes obvious that they haven't gone on a fishing trip. One of them turns up dead, and the race is on to find the other. This is a fairly simple story, and there are no tricksy plot devices or red-herrings, but it's skillfully told.

From the outset it is clear that Robert Crais is a writer who is as interested in writing about the psyche as he is in carving out plots. This is not just a missing person's case; it's a rites of passage story, for Ellen Lang in particular. She is the timid client who walks into Elvis's office very much in the shadow of her overbearing and very irritating friend Janet. At first, Ellen is so dependent on her absent husband that she can't even write a cheque but, by the end of the tale, she's Sarah Connor going up against the Terminator: her transition from mouse to she-bear is fascinating to watch.

There's a reality to the novel. Elvis doesn't always get things right: there are shades of grey to his adversaries, confrontations are violent, often deadly, and realistically described without being nauseatingly graphic. "On TV, a guy gets knifed or shot and he's dead," Elvis says. "In the world, dying takes a while and smells bad."

I didn't finish the book with the impression that the world is a particularly cheery place, or that I'd be entirely at home living in parts of Los Angeles. But at the same time, I didn't feel I'd been dragged down into the mire either. One reason for that is that no matter how bad things get or how badly things go wrong, Elvis always has hope: "When I was little I would sit in my window and watch the rain and feel easy and at peace," he says. "I didn't feel that way anymore, though I kept trying out windows and rainstorms and probably always would."

As well as Elvis and his vegetarian, sunglasses-wearing, discreetly tattooed tough-guy partner Joe Pike, the book is stuffed full of great characters. There's Detective Lou Poitras, "like the Michelin man with a headache"; a wannabe Hollywood starlet with all the morals of a pedophile drug-dealer; a retired bullfighter with a bullfighter's code; a movie producer with fewer morals than the starlet, and a host of minor characters who, if this was television, could easily go on to have spin-off series of their own.

As well as plot and characterisation, the author manages to squeeze in a little gentle humour amongst the murder and mayhem. Sometimes Elvis's comic foil is Joe, sometimes it's the cat and sometimes it's reflective, relieving the tension until the next turn of events. There are a hundred and one references to TV, films and books, too -- from the Green Hornet and the Blue Beetle to Knight Rider, Leave It to Beaver and The Wizard of Oz -- and some decent recipes; as well as being the world's greatest detective, Elvis is quite a cook.

If you enjoy the books of John D. MacDonald and Robert B. Parker, then you'll love this. If you haven't had the pleasure of finding either of those authors yet, try Crais first. I don't think you'll be disappointed.

- Rambles
written by Jean Lewis
published 8 March 2003

Buy it from