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Crais' 'Suspect' looks at human-canine bond

| Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Shot twice, her handler Pete mortally wounded by an IED, the gravely injured Maggie, a bomb-sniffing German shepherd attached to the U.S. Marine Corps in Afghanistan, covers Pete's body with her own in a futile but valiant attempt to protect him.

For Maggie, it's all about protecting her pack. To her, Pete is everything.

That's the opening scene in best-selling author Robert Crais' new novel, “Suspect,” a book he says is the most emotional he's written.

“Throughout the writing, again and again, during certain scenes, I would be sitting here at my computer blubbering like a baby,” says Crais, 59, from his home in Los Angeles. “It was an extremely emotional time for me.”

That's because he wasn't just thinking about Maggie.

Sixteen years ago, Crais' beloved Akita, Yoshi, 12, died in his arms. “When he passed,” says Crais, a life-long dog lover, “I just couldn't get another dog. It felt disloyal.”

Two years ago, during a pre-dawn hike through the canyons near his home, Crais, best known for suspense novels starring Elvis Cole and Joe Pike, began to think about bringing another dog into his life. “I started to think maybe it's time again, and as I started processing all that, I started wanting to read up on why it has taken me this long.”

So Crais began researching the nature of the human-canine relationship. That led to stories about military working dogs and how their bonds with their human handlers “were closer and tighter than most people could ever realize. I grew fascinated by that bond. It resonated with me. Yoshi was such a part of my life, and we, in many ways, were that kind of team.”

The purity of that bond, says Crais, inspired him to write “Suspect,” in which the traumatized Maggie, who, like human war veterans, struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder, and Scott James, an injured LAPD detective also suffering from PTSD, work together to find the people who killed James' partner.

And while a number of nonfiction books have been published about the heroism of dogs serving with U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, few authors, if any, have made them heroes in their novels.

Crais was careful when writing about Maggie not to anthropomorphize her inner life. “It was super important to me to not make Maggie a cartoon,” he says.

Out of respect for the heroic work performed by military dogs, he says, he wanted Maggie to be “real” and his portrayal of her to accurately reflect how dogs perceive the world.

So, when he wanted to describe how she reacted to a detonated IED and gunfire, he says, “I know she's going to be onslaughted with scents, with smell impressions and with physical sensations and sound impressions. It was up to me to try to put together and figure out how these things would impress upon her, because those are the things that tail into her having PTSD and underlay everything else that's going to happen in the rest of the book.”

Crais hopes “Suspect” — which Booklist calls a “gripping and heartfelt thriller” — pays tribute to the nation's military dogs and raises public awareness about the challenges many of them face when they return home from war zones.

“First and foremost, I am a commercial writer,” Crais says, “and I hope to entertain people.

“But having said that, I'm in love with the relationship between humans and dogs, and the more I learned about what our military working dogs are doing, I wanted to, at least, share with people what an important role these animals have in all our lives.”

Crais might be ready to start a new relationship himself. “I'm thinking about getting a dog now,” he says. (He already has two cats.)

“I think writing the book opened a lot of doors for me. It helped me heal in a lot of ways. I think I reached a place where I understand that it wouldn't be disloyal to Yoshi anymore.”

And readers may not have seen the last of Maggie.

“I have this horrible weakness,” Crais says. “I fall in love with my characters. ‘Suspect' started as a one-shot, but I just love Maggie so much, and I love Maggie and Scott and what they have going.”

Carol Memmott is a staff writer for USA Today.

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