Review: The Promise by Robert Crais

Reviewed by Stephen Dedman

Robert Crais is the multi-award winning author of the Elvis Cole novels and a few other thrillers, and a former writer for Hill Street Blues, The Twilight Zone, LA Law, Miami Vice, The Equalizer, Earth 2 and other shows. He’s also one of Lee Child’s favourite crime writers, and the back cover blurb aptly describes him as “the master of the intelligent action thriller” (please don’t let the Dan Brown recommendation deter you.) The Promise is his sixteenth Elvis Cole and Joe Pike novel, and second Scott and Maggie novel.

The novel begins with a hook reminiscent (and worthy) of Breaking Bad: Rollins, a chemist who specialises in illegal drugs, has tested a sample of a new plastic explosive offered by a mysterious woman who calls herself Amy. Amy has offered to sell 400 pounds of the stuff, but stipulated that she must meet the buyer first. Rollins has a sample ready to collect, but his contact has sent a gang member to pick it up, and the thug has been identified by cops and chased to Rollins’ lab. Rollins kills the gang-banger and runs.

Meanwhile, private investigator Elvis Cole has been hired by another mysterious woman to find Amy Breslyn, a chemical engineer accused of embezzling funds from their employer, a munitions manufacturer. He’s sent to the last known address of an ex-boyfriend of Breslyn’s – the rental house Rollins is using as a lab.

LAPD K9 officer Scott James and Maggie, a retired Army-trained bomb sniffer dog, are sent to the back door of the house as Rollins escapes from the front. Maggie detects the scent of explosives, Cole runs after Rollins but is unable to catch him, the bomb squad is called, and Cole is treated as a suspect. Not wanting to name his secretive client, he lies about his reason for going to the house; finding himself under surveillance, he calls in his partner, ex-mercenary Joe Pike, to run interference for him.

The deeper Cole digs, the more disturbing the case becomes. Breslyn, the chemist, had a son killed by terrorist in Nigeria, but is apparently eager to sell explosives to al Qaeda. Scott survives an attempt to booby-trap his car thanks to Maggie’s nose for explosives, and, despite being ordered not to contact Cole, decides to help him untangle the mess of lies to try to avert a tragedy – or a disaster.

I discovered the Elvis Cole novels in the early 90s; the first, The Monkey’s Raincoat, is extremely good, but it was the second, Stalking the Angel, that had me completely hooked. Cole, a former US Army Ranger who mysteriously never seems to age (he was 35 in The Monkey’s Raincoat) is a P.I. who follows his conscience in the tradition of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. Like Marlowe or John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee, he’s also an entertaining and insightful first-person narrator; unfortunately, the large cast and complicated plot of The Promise means that large chunks of the novel are told in third person with some head-hopping (we even see some scenes from Maggie’s perspective), and while this helps create suspense and helps the reader keep track of the frequent plot twists and changing aliases, some of the transitions are rather jarring.

I can heartily recommend Crais’s Cole and Pike novels, and if you become hooked on the series as I did (I suggest you start at the beginning), you’ll enjoy The Promise. Promise.

Stephen Dedman is a writer, book reviewer, and tutor. He’s previously been an actor, a manuscript assessor, an academic and legal WPO, an editorial assistant for Australian Physicist magazine, an experimental subject, and a used dinosaur parts salesman.