Tough-guy novelist unleashes police-dog thriller
SANTA ANA, Calif. -- Robert Crais made his name writing thrillers that starred private-eye Elvis Cole and tough-guy Joe Pike, guys adept at dropping wisecracks and thugs in equal measure. His new heroine, she can take down a bad guy with the best of them, but beyond that she's like nothing Crais dreamed up before.
"You really want to be me when out of the blue you tell your publisher your next book is about a dog," Crais says, laughing. "Loooooong silence."
But Maggie, the military dog turned LAPD German shepherd and partner to Officer Scott James, the other protagonist of "Suspect," isn't one of your typical show-biz dogs, the kind portrayed as either preternaturally smart or a human in a dog's fur coat.
"I get it," Crais says. "When I first said I was going to write a book about a dog, the reaction is that it's going to be like what they've seen on TV or in movies. That it's going to be a human wearing a black-and-tan jacket: 'Maggie! Get the car keys!'
"I didn't want to do that. Simply out of respect for these animals I didn't want to make Maggie a cartoon. I wanted to write her as realistically and believably as possible. And that's where the enormous amount of research came in. Because there are scenes written from Maggie's point of view and they're written as realistically as all the research I did allowed me to create them."
That his new book featured a cop-and-dog crime-fighting team happened mostly by accident, Crais says.
"I began research not because I was looking for a book but because I've always been a dog guy, though I don't have one now," he says. "My last dog passed away about 15 years ago and I was never able to replace him. I felt disloyal."
He'd picked out that dog, an Akita he named Yoshi, when the pup was just a few days old, and they lived together for 12 years until Yoshi died. After a few years, Crais said he'd occasionally think it might be time to get another dog, but he'd always drop the idea as memories of his old pack mate resurfaced.
"I decided I wanted to find out why -- why do I feel this way about my dog," he says. "So I started reading about that, mostly to try to explain to myself that whole human-dog relationship. That led to enormous amounts of reading about how dogs think, how dogs perceive the world, dog senses, dog training.
"And that led to K-9 cops and their dogs, and military dogs and their trainers. And when I started to get into that territory I think that's where the character of Maggie came to me. Because there is no closer relationship between a human and a dog than between military handlers and their dogs when they're down range, overseas in Afghanistan and Iraq."
In "Suspect," both Maggie and Scott James have lost partners with whom they were close. Both are wounded characters, physically and emotionally, facets of their personalities that Crais embraced as he wrote the book.
"It allowed me to illustrate what a healing force a dog can be in our lives, and how man and dog can heal each other," he says. "I wanted to show these two damaged individuals, the dog and the man, and how they need each other and bond together and form their own pack."
Working on the book left Crais with a great deal of respect for the LAPD K-9 officers he watched work as part of his research.
"It is the most dangerous job that a police officer can have," he says. "A K-9 officer is more likely to be in violent confrontation with a bad guy than a SWAT officer, a narcotics officer, any other kind of officer. They're not deployed until there's a bad guy who's already made the choice that he's not going to give up.
"It's a pretty gnarly job."
The book also left him feeling more likely to add a new dog to his family.
"To go through this with Maggie was very healing for me personally," Crais says. "I think I could get another dog now and I think I will. There's been a lot of closure through this process."
"Suspect," which brings Maggie and Scott together to solve the crime that killed Scott's partner, was originally intended as a stand-alone book, something different to do before returning to Crais' long-running series with Elvis Cole and Joe Pike.
"I love Elvis and Joe, they're my go-to guys," Crais says. "But I fell in love with Maggie. Having written her, and where this [book] leaves off, there's ample opportunity to return to her. And what I'm hearing from initial reader, and reviewer, response -- I don't want to jinx myself -- but she may turn into one of my most popular characters. So I've already been noodling around ideas."
Ideas, he says, not just for a book that features Maggie and Scott, but one that might also bring her into the world he'd already created for Elvis and Joe.
"I have been trying to twist and turn and yoga that so I can maybe use Maggie in an Elvis and Joe book," Crais says. "If I can figure that one out, that one will be a slam dunk."