The Watchman by Robert Crais

watchman.jpgOne of the challenges I face in reviewing books is how to handle a series of books or books with reoccurring characters. When I was young, and had lots of free time, I would always read a series in chronological order (publishing order, not internal to the books). I want to read and discover how the author developed the characters and plot as the series progressed. I wanted to be in on the inside jokes and references.

In my current circumstances that really isn’t possible. There simply isn’t enough time for me to go back and read a series before I take on the latest release. I have too many other books I want to read. There are always books I want to read but can’t because tough choices have to be made. This is often one of those choices.

The reason I bring this up, is that this choice in itself presents a challenge. For example, I recently finished The Watchman by Robert Crais. The lead character in the novel is Joe Pike. Pike is secondary character in Crais’ previous series which featured L.A. PI Elvis Cole; who is in turn a secondary character in this new series. Before The Watchman I had never read anything by Crais. So I have no background on either character nor on Crais style.

This puts me at a disadvantage in many ways compared to other reviewers. I can’t comment on how this book compares to others in the Cole Series nor can I comment on how Pike is developed and presented in comparison to past stories. All I can do is judge the book as a stand alone work. Nothing terribly wrong with that, it just feels a little incomplete.

With that caveat out of the way, please see the review below.

Here is the basic plot. In order to pay off a old debt Joe Pike agrees to safeguard Larkin Barkley, a wealthy heiress who has agreed to testify as a federal witness. But what at first appeared to be a simple case of protection turns into a complicated conspiracy. Pike not only has to keep the strong willed Larkin alive, but he has to figure out who it is exactly that is trying to kill her and why.

The story has a strong element of the hard boiled detective but it also reminded me of the spy novels I used to read. The cloak and dagger (with guns of course) action takes place in Los Angeles not Berlin or Moscow, but the process is similar. The protagonist has to use his wits and contacts to outsmart the enemy while staying one step ahead of the those who are trying to kill him.

Like the classic spy, Pike is the emotionally damaged nearly superhuman killing machine. Enigmatic, quiet, and ultimately very lonely, Pike nevertheless is intensely loyal and caring to those he loves. And this is where Larking comes in. In her mind they have nothing in common. But in reality they are both desperately seeking to compensate for, or salvage, a damaged childhood.

As you might imagine, Crais walks a fine line here. A little too much super heroics from Pike and the book becomes cheesy action hero paperback. A little heavy on the emotional side and it becomes and pain-by-numbers psychological drama; a soap opera with guns. But he pulls it off by balancing the action and the emotion and by writing with what Publishers Weekly called “breathless pace and rich styling.”

The plot is multi-layered and full of interesting twists and turns. Outside of Pike, and Cole who provides a little comic relief, you are never sure who are the real good guys and who are the bad guys. There is a nice mix of action, mystery, and character development. Crais uses the interludes with Cole and Pike’s internal dialog to keep the pace taunt but not over-heated.

I read most of The Watchman in airports and on the plane and I have to say it was entertaining reading; suspenseful and fast paced, but with an emotional element. Despite not having read any of his previous work, I am sure Robert Crais fans will want to read this first Joe Pike novel. Those of you who, like me, haven’t entered the world of Elvis Cole or Joe Pike are sure to enjoy The Watchman as well. And who knows, you might be inspired to go back and read the whole series.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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