Friday, February 21, 2014

Book Review: The Closed Man

Book Reviewed: The Sentry (2011) 
Author: Robert Crais
Available from: Rainy Day Books, or other fine booksellers.

I have been sampling the collection in my late aunt's extensive library of thrillers and crime fiction. Here are some thoughts about one of her books, The Sentry, by Robert Crais.

Joe Pike and Elvis Cole are two of Crais' recurring characters, although it so far doesn't look as if my aunt had other titles in this series.  If a person was coming to this book in the context of the series, s/he might have different expectations. However, this was my first exposure to Pike and Cole. 

Robert Crais is an accomplished author, and his characters Joe and Elvis have a worldwide following, so even before I opened the cover I knew Crais would be doing a lot of things very well.  The mystery is well-conceived, the setting (Venice, California) adds enjoyable color, the viewpoints are clearly distinguished and well-chosen, the characters are all individual, believable, and interesting, and the suspense is written fairly effectively (more on that in a bit).

On the whole, the book rewards reading.

But. (You knew that was coming.) A major problem with noir heroes--for me, anyway--is the fact that they are Closed Men.

Tough. Hyper-competent. Emotionless. 

I kept imagining that if my writers' group was reading this as a manuscript, there'd be a lot of frustrated marginalia to the effect of "What is he feeling, here?  What is he thinking?"  

Joe Pike does not acknowledge, even to himself, that he has emotions, other than practicing a sort of Zen mind-set to keep himself from feeling his emotions. This makes for a distinctive character, I'll say that.

Unfortunately, the down-side is that he's also not terribly relatable, and the distance he keeps from his feelings also defeats some of the reactions a writer really wants his or her readers to be feeling at the climax.  

Joe does everything in his power to keep from feeling the very strong emotions that must certainly be in play when people are shooting at him, for instance, or when he is doing the Decisive Things noir heroes have to do. As a result we, the readers, don't really feel it very much.

In the writing, this emotionlessness can bleed over into characters who are supposed to be more in touch with their feelings, such as Elvis. At one dramatic point near the end of the book Elvis shed tears--but we do not feel his pain, so we (at least I) have no trouble staying dry-eyed. 

I'm sure Crais wasn't going for a multi-hankie tear-jerker, but if my character was crying, I'd want the readers to feel something.

Another problem I have with the Closed Man viewpoint is that Joe Pike seems always to know what to do next--but he doesn't clue the readers in to his thoughts. The result is a kind of myopic, "He went here.  He did this.  Next he went there.  He did that." 

Joe Pike does not explain himself. Either we "get it," or we don't, and he doesn't care which. He also does not second-guess himself, or appear to have many doubts--not even when he should. To me, that's not "strong," so much as kind of arrogant, and damned lucky more often than chance ought to allow.

He keeps his own counsel, and acts rather than speaking. His moral compass exists, but it's pointing in a somewhat different direction from most people's.  He's very selective whose pain he cares about, and he also seems to see a brighter, clearer line between "dirtbags" and "acceptable people" than most. I think in his own mind he's somewhere outside of either category.

Joe Pike doesn't care whether I like him or not. Unfortunately, by the end of the book I don't much care about him, either.

IMAGE CREDITS: the cover art is courtesy of Rainy Day Books' website, from the listing spotlighting the book.  The photo of Crais is by Julie Dennis Brothers, and is re-posted from his website bio page.

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