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The Watchman, Robert Crais, Simon & Schuster, $25.95.

The Watchman by Robert Crais

A couple of my guy customers have already told me that this is their favorite Crais novel - mine remains LA Requiem - but like LA Requiem, The Watchman is all about Joe Pike. I guess every Crais novel can't be about Joe - he doesn't talk enough, for one thing - but he sure is compelling. Joe Pike is also a man of action, and Robert Crais has very few, if any, peers when it comes to writing action sequences. Maybe it comes from his background in writing for television, but wherever it comes from, give me a Crais novel over a movie any day. They're so exciting, so visceral, and so memorable that reading one is like a little bit of heaven on earth.

Crais is also one of the kings of multiple viewpoint writing - he goes from Joe's point of view, to Elvis', to several other characters. One of my favorites is the hapless John Chen, a "friend" of Joe and Elvis' who works crime scene evidence for the LAPD. He can be talked into doing favors for Joe and Elvis thanks to the case in L.A. Requiem (check it out yourself if you haven't read it) and on this case, Joe is "in the weeds" and needs Chen's help. Pike is totally off the grid baby-sitting a Paris Hilton like socialite who happened to see someone she shouldn't have during a fender bender and is supposed to be a federal witness, but people keep trying to kill her. Joe Pike, of course, is the only guy on the planet who can keep her safe.

As the book moves forward - at a typical breakneck, Crais pace - bits of Joe's life are teased out, different bits than we learned about in L.A. Requiem. At the same time, his spoiled charge, Larkin Conner, comes to respect Joe and ultimately to trust him more than anyone else. Larkin, it seems, has almost as many issues with her father as Joe did with his, and while the much older Joe has learned to deal with his emotional baggage, the much younger Larkin has yet to figure this kind of thing out. In the end, both of them respond in ways that are consistent with their characters.

Elvis is on the canvas too, in this novel more for comic relief than anything else, though Pike's respect for Elvis is evident. As this series moves forward and Elvis and Joe become more three dimensional - in ways Parker's Hawk and Spenser never have been - Crais moves the emotional quality up a notch. As a reader, I feel more invested in both of them, whereas I know if I pick up a Parker book (always enjoyable, don't get me wrong), Spenser will still be Superman, Hawk will still be a silent killer, and the annoying Susan and her creepy dog will still be keeping company with Spenser. I like Crais' evolution of his characters as much as I enjoy his skills as a complete and utter page turning writer. All this fancy woolgathering about Elvis and Joe does not detract from what is a nuclear powered story that doesn't let up until the last page. I can easily see what my guy customers found to enjoy.

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