The Sentry, By Robert Crais

Action man who's worth investigating

Does anyone give a damn who actually publishes crime fiction? Joe and Jane Public couldn't care less, but aficionados are well aware that certain houses boast copper-bottomed crime lists. Orion rides high in this fraternity. Having in your stable James Lee Burke, Ian Rankin and Michael Connelly, the company might (one would have thought) occasionally rest on its laurels.

But Orion is heavily pushing a new book by another of its stellar American names, Robert Crais. Is there a reason for this extra level of attention given to a writer whose standing is already asssured? The Sentry pushes many of the buttons that Crais admirers will expect, but is subtly different from earlier work, although perhaps "subtly" is not le mot juste here.

Crais burst on the crime scene over two decades ago with his Elvis Cole novels, producing the modern heir apparent to the classic hard-bitten private eye. Then he began enriching his work, delivering multi-layered visions of the darker side of American society, notably in the ambitious L.A. Requiem.

In The Sentry, the central character is not the sardonic Cole but his taciturn partner, Joe Pike. The tone here is jet black, the action unrelenting, with fortissimo levels of violence. On a recent visit, Crais playfully asked: "Do you think I go over to the dark side with this book?" It doesn't take many pages to come up with an answer.

Driving through Venice, California, Joe Pike saves a sandwich-shop owner from a savage beating. His intervention is followed by an encounter with the owner's niece, the alluring Dru Rayne, who draws Pike into the carnage of a gangland battle. Tooled up with his usual lethal accoutrements, the ex-cop is soon taking on the Mexican mafia, vicious Bolivian drug dealers, even interference from the LAPD and the FBI. Needless to say, in the middle of this maelstrom there is one man he can rely on – his friend and partner Elvis Cole. The almost non-stop action reaches a bloody climax on a ridge overlooking the San Fernando Valley.

There are two ways to look at The Sentry. One might regret the stripping-out of the layers of complexity of Crais' superb mid-period books. Or one might simply fasten a metaphorical seatbelt for a wild ride that allows few pauses for breath. Whichever view you take, there is one ineluctable fact: Robert Crais – and Joe Pike – will have you by the throat.

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