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L.A. the perfect canvas for Crais' crime novels

| Sunday, Aug. 19, 2001

The book

  • 'Hostage.'
  • By Robert Crais.
  • Doubleday, $24.95.

  • Los Angeles is known as the City of Angels, La-la Land, a place where dreams go to die. It's been home to such infamous rogues as Fatty Arbuckle, Heidi Fleiss, Charles Manson and O.J. Simpson, and the backdrop for the Black Dahlia murder in 1947 and the 1992 riots that were ignited by the Rodney King verdict.

    No wonder mystery and crime novelist Robert Crais likes it there.

    'It's the ideal canvas to paint pictures of crime fiction,' Crais says. 'There's something uncertain about our very environment here. You can't even trust the earth beneath your feet.'

    Crais' just-released novel, 'Hostage,' could take place only in Los Angeles. When three small-time criminals - the Rooney brothers, Dennis and Kevin, and the frightening (and aptly named) Mars Krupchek, who has 'BURN IT' tattooed on the back of his bald head - take a family hostage after a convenience store robbery ends up in the death of a sales clerk, the situation explodes into a media frenzy. Helicopters hover over the house, and television remote crews flock to the crime scene in the sedate, fictional community of Bristo Camino, where Jeff Talley, a former L.A.P.D. SWAT team negotiator, has gone to hide from his problems. A mistake Talley made during a hostage situation a few years earlier resulted in the death of a boy and caused him to abandon his wife, his daughter and his life.

    The situation further deteriorates when it turns out the hapless criminals have entered a home that belongs to an accountant who keeps records for the Mafia.

    Crais wrote eight novels featuring hip (and much beloved by readers) Los Angeles private eye Elvis Cole before releasing 'Demolition Angel' in 2000. That book featured Carol Starkey, another conflicted, damaged cop haunted by failure. He intended to return to Cole's popular character with this novel but couldn't resist Talley's character.

    'He's a cop who was forced, with absolutely no way out, to confront the very demons that he had spent much of his life running away from,' Crais says. 'He leaves his wife and child, he leaves Los Angeles, he leaves his job, and he ends up as the sheriff in Mayberry. He's a career cop, but he finds a job in the most non-coplike environment in the world.'

    The plot becomes more complicated when mobster Sonny Benza, worried that information about his organization's illegal activities will fall into the hands of police, orders his own team to the crime site. Talley's wife and daughter are kidnapped and taken hostage, and suddenly Talley's world has plunged into freefall.

    'This is a book about the elements in our lives we can't control,' Crais says, 'and I think that's something we can all relate to. ... What happens when we're driving down the freeway, what the government is going to do, whether or not the phone company is going to screw up your call waiting - we can't control it to a degree. We're all just drifting along and reacting to it, and that's really the basis of what's happening to Jeff Talley and the bad guys.'

    The writing in 'Hostage' is crisp and brisk, and the book's action takes place in a compact 14-hour period. Crais, who began his career writing screenplays for television shows such as 'Hill Street Blues,' 'Miami Vice' and 'Cagney and Lacey,' says those experiences inform how he approaches his novels.

    'In television, everything has to be tight, everything has to be concise,' he says. 'The characters and the plot have to be organic with one another, if you're doing your job well. I think that's probably one of the reasons why people comment that what I write moves so quickly and is so visual. Apparently, when people read my prose it's easy for them to build a mental movie of what's going on in the page.'

    And yes, Hollywood is calling, and not just because Crais lives nearby. He recently finished the screenplay for 'Demolition Angel' and is working on one based on 'Hostage.' The rights to the latter have recently been bought by Bruce Willis and MGM, but Crais isn't holding his breath about release dates or filming schedules.

    'I'm not even sure where 'Demolition Angel' stands,' he says. 'It's kind of in development hell, which is kind of like the purgatory waiting room in Hollywood. They keep saying good things, they keep talking about how they're just a month away from casting it, but so far that hasn't happened.'

    Hmmm. That does sound like the Los Angeles Crais writes about. More certain is another book featuring Cole, which the author says will be a sequel to 1999's 'L.A. Requiem.'

    'Halfway through writing 'Hostage,' I found that I began to miss Elvis Cole's Los Angeles, that whole reality for Cole and Joe Pike (his sidekick),' he says. 'I was anxious to get back those guys, and that's what I'm doing now.'

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