Robert Crais is the real thing: a writer who keeps topping himself. Last year, after eight popular books featuring private eye Elvis Cole (including L.A. Requiem and Voodoo River), he produced Demolition Angel, his first standalone suspense novel. Its complex, multidimensional hero was a damaged cop haunted by her past failures. It worked in that book, and it works even better in this one.
Jeff Talley, the police chief in a small Southern California town, still has nightmares about the young hostage who died when he made the wrong call in his previous job as a negotiator for an LAPD SWAT team. Now, three smalltime punks go on the run after a grocery store robbery and killing in Talley’s town. Soon his deputies have surrounded the house where the inept robbers have taken Walter Smith and his two children hostage, and Talley’s back in his worst dream again: until the county sheriff’s full-fledged SWAT team arrives and takes over, he has to negotiate for their lives.
Crais keeps the point of view moving from Talley to the punks to the hostages as the situation unfolds in the house and on the ground. Then he ratchets up the dramatic tension: there’s something in Walter Smith’s house that a ruthless Mob boss wants, and he’ll sacrifice anyone to get it–which puts Talley’s own family in danger. The action speeds to its climax with the velocity of a heat-seeking missile, which makes it almost criminal to slow down long enough to savor the great writing. Take this passage, from a scene when Talley’s face-to-face with the man who’s holding his own wife and daughter hostage:
Talley … had stepped into the Zone. It was a place of white noise where emotions reigned and reason was meager. Anger and rage were nonstop tickets; panic was an express. He had been all day coming to this, and here he was: the SWAT guys used to talk about it. You went to the Zone, you lost your edge. You’d lose your career; you’d get yourself killed, or, worse, somebody else.
Crais belongs in that tier of writers whose novelistic gifts transcend the thriller category–writers like Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane, and James Lee Burke.
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