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Acclaimed Los Angeles-based mystery writer Robert Crais goes to the dogs — literally — in his new novel, Suspect.
Crais sums up the book with this pithy elevator pitch: “A man who is damaged and a dog who is hurt need each other to heal.”
The story centers on Los Angeles Police Department detective Scott James, who is assigned to work with Maggie, a German shepherd just returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan as a bomb-sniffing dog, as the pair investigate the murder of Scott’s partner Stephanie.
But the heart of the novel is the relationship that develops between Scott and Maggie, who both recently lost their partners: James in a brutal — and still unsolved — nighttime assault and Maggie, who lost her Marine handler in an IED explosion.
Crais takes a risk — Maggie emerges as a full-fledged character — that pays off. The touching bond between James and Maggie is as rich as any partnership in crime fiction and gives the story an emotional resonance that adds a depth to the crime and mystery aspects.
The novel marks a temporary turn away from the character he’s most identified with: Elvis Cole, the Army Ranger-turned-private investigator at the center of 15 of his previous novels.
Released at the end of January, Suspect already has hit No. 3 on the USA Today best-seller list and No. 6 on The New York Times combined print/ebook list.
Crais talked with The Hollywood Reporter about the inspiration for the new book, writing L.A.-based crime stories and meeting his idol Elmore Leonard.
THR: How did you decide to focus on the relationship between a detective and his police dog for this novel?
Robert Crais: I originally began researching dogs and the man-dog relationship really to deal with my own sort of sustained grief over the loss of my dog, which is going on for the insane time period of about 15 years now. Every time I would think about replacing him, I would just feel terribly disloyal or ashamed of myself. I thought, “Jesus, am I crazy?”
I started reading about that, and the whole world of the man/dog symbiosis sort of opened up. The cliche that we call dogs a man’s best friend is true. The research led me to into military work in dogs and dog/handler relationships and police patrol dogs. Thereby I came up with Maggie.
I began to encounter real-life stories of dogs protecting their wounded or dying or dead handler … or dogs refusing to leave the bodies of the people they were bonded to, sitting in cemeteries for days or sometimes weeks. You find these stories endlessly. Out of that came the whole notion of Maggie and Scott.
The relationship between a military working dog and a military dog handler is about as close as a man and a dog can become. You see this loyalty, the devotion, unlike any other and the protectiveness.
It’s not as intense with police officers, but still for the police dog handler it is a unique job. It’s the one police job you do 24 hours a day because technically the dog is the property of the city, but the dog lives with the police K9 handlers at their home, just like Maggie lives with James.
We’re just talking about the bonding. There’s also the healing benefit of having a dog in your life. There are numerous books and articles written about that part. From Walter Reed to VA hospitals throughout the country — veterans who were injured or wounded, the studies are manifest: Where they bring dogs in just to let people touch them and pet them, it lowers blood pressure, gives aid and healing.
There’s something magical about that relationship. That’s part of the James-Maggie story too. I wanted them both to have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. Both lost the most important person to them, so they come together because they need each other to heal. I know I’m a crime guy, but in my way of thinking, it’s a story about healing between this man and between the dog.
One of the things that make your stories so great — and it’s at work again here in Suspect — is how you make use of Los Angeles as a location. Can you talk about the influence of the city on your work?
I’m originally from Louisiana, but I moved here a long time ago. I’m one of those lucky guys where I can live anywhere on the planet if I wanted and do this, but I want to live here. Los Angeles is my home.
As a backdrop for the stories that I write, it’s perfect. For one thing, it’s so geographically diverse — from the mountains to the basins, flatlands, East and Westside, south down to Long Beach to up north the deserts. It’s uniquely western.
More important than the physical beauty of the place, to me this is what it represents to me personally as a canvas of change. People come here from all over the planet to remake themselves, to chase their dreams; they come here to be actors — and a lot of them do, but a lot of them when we’re talking undocumented aliens come in from the way south, or people from the Far East come here for opportunities they come here for a better life they come here because they’re chasing some kind of magic that Los Angeles represents to them. Anytime you have that many people putting so much at risk, it’s a beautiful gumbo, a kind of edgy danger and business that you can transform into crime novels
One of my favorite things is to drive around and explore. The city has put up these signs everywhere: There’s Little Ethiopia, there’s Koreatown, there’s Little Armenia. Pockets of all these people who have come from other places. Even though I’m an American from Louisiana, I personally relate to that. I came here chasing my dreams because I wanted to be professional writer. I wanted to be something other than what I would’ve been back home, and that’s what L.A. represents to me.
If you’re me doing what I do for a living, you can just drive around and find stories constantly, everywhere, it’s not a question of finding an idea, it’s too many ideas.
THR: Elmore Leonard is one of your influences, right?
You bet. I’ve only met him one time and I’m a huge fan of his work, but it’s weird because I do what I do and he does what he does. Crime writers tend to cross paths a lot here in the U.S. Of all places I met him in a small town called Mantova, Italy, at a literary conference two or three years ago. I didn’t even know he was going to be there, and I look across the lobby in the hotel and it’s a small hotel and there’s Dutch Leonard! I went total fanboy. I had to work up my courage because he was talking to these two people. Finally I worked up my nerve. I’m like, “Sorry, I don’t want to interrupt, but my name is Robert Crais. I just have to tell you I’m a huge fan.” And he was totally friendly and relaxed. He said: “Oh, I’ve been wanting to meet you. Call me Dutch.” I literally crawfished out of there. Suddenly I was 11 years old all over again.
Would you get another dog now?
Writing in this book was all a healing process for me. During the course of the research I was meeting all these great dogs and spending more and more time with them and watching them work, and somewhere in the process I made peace with it. Once the publication and promotion of the book comes to an end and my life settles down again, I think it’s going to be time.
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