Robert Crais Uses the Chaos of Katrina to Frame Crime Novel 'The Sentry'

By Behe, Rege | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, January 9, 2011 | Go to article overview

Robert Crais Uses the Chaos of Katrina to Frame Crime Novel 'The Sentry'


Behe, Rege, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


Joe Pike is a loner, a fierce-looking guy who constantly wears dark glasses and sports red arrow tattoos, pointing forward, on each deltoid. Formerly a cop, he's been a mercenary at flashpoints around the world, and owns a gun store in Los Angeles.

He's also a heartthrob.

"Women have gone insane for Joe Pike. ... Women have really embraced him," author Robert Crais says of his fictional character. "It's stunning. If you go to my Facebook page, read the comments. Apparently, he's a worthy fantasy character for a lot of ladies. It's probably a pretty good thing to be Joe Pike."

It's also been a boon for Crais. His new novel, "The Sentry," is the second consecutive outing, and third book overall, featuring Pike as the central character.

Crais admits Pike's popularity was part of the reason he didn't return to Elvis Cole, the private detective who first appeared in the 1987 novel, "The Monkey's Raincoat." Cole is a "more personable character," according to the author. But since Pike, Cole's longtime sidekick, became the protagonist in 2007's "The Watchman," he's provided Crais with a rare literary tandem: Two strong characters who can alternately carry a book, or slide back into the shadows as an intriguing secondary character.

They also are men who are not willing to standby when they see trouble. "The Sentry" begins -- after a short prologue -- with Pike pumping gas into his Jeep when he sees trouble happening at a sandwich shop. He intervenes and is caught up in a web that includes two displaced survivors of Hurricane Katrina, Dru Rayne and Wilson Smith, who are not the simple shop owners they initially appear to be. They've stolen money from a drug cartel, changed their names and identities, and are constantly on the alert.

Crais, a native of Louisiana, was in Metairie visiting family friends in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit the mainland. Like many others, Crais was forced to evacuate. Crais considered how hundreds of thousands of people were displaced by the natural disaster. But another idea that came to him in the aftermath of Katrina, one that is in counterpoint to many of the feel-good stories about reinvention and rebirth, kickstarted his writing.

"The image I had was that the storm stirred the silt at the bottom of the river," he says. "That kicks up a lot of debris and a lot of garbage. And the whole notion that the storm was giving cover to a crime that was happening was a strong notion for me. …

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