Racing the Light by Robert Crais

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The Louisiana-born author Robert Crais began his career working on what are now considered iconic 80s crime shows – Miami Vice, Hill Street Blues, LA Law and more. However, he’s even better known for his Elvis Cole and Joe Pike novels. The series was born way back in 1987 with The Monkey’s Raincoat. Set in southern California, it’s rich in local colour with solid hardboiled credentials.

Cole and Pike have become firm favourites with lovers of American PI fiction and Racing the Light is their 19th outing. Cole is the first port of call for clients, a slightly whimsical character but anyone underestimating his smarts will do so at their peril. Pike is the hard in hardboiled – if you need a wingman, he’s your go-to guy. This time an oddball missing persons case turns out to be a lot more complicated than it first appears.

Geeky podcaster Josh ‘Shoe’ Schumacher is obsessed with Area 51, aliens and government secrets. When his friend Skylar calls him with a story, it’s not his usual stuff. This time it’s real world, it’s big and it’s dangerous. Powerful people are involved. They agree to meet in an out-of-the-way all-night cafe. Skylar hands Josh a memory stick and warns him not to share it with anyone until he’s ready to air it on his show.  

A couple of weeks later Adele Schumacher and her minders waltz into Cole’s office. Her boy Josh is missing and the police don’t care. Of course, she wants him found. She throws a wedge of cash on the desk. She doesn’t believe in banks, telephones or digital trails. All round this is starting to sound like a very weird family because Adele’s theory is that the US government is behind Josh’s disappearance and the answers are to be found in the Nevada Desert. Area 51, to be exact.

Josh’s fiends, the few that there are, are not particularly helpful. The cops are snowed under and they don’t have anything to go on in Josh’s case. A missing guy in his mid-20s is not a priority. His podcast partner and producer Ryan does let on that Josh has a friend, a porn star he did a podcast on. Skylar might know something. When Cole tries to track her down he finds she has also gone missing. The exact nature of their relationship is unclear but something seems to have been going on between them.

Adele’s ex-husband Corbin sticks his oar in. He’s concerned Cole doesn’t take Adele for a ride but that’s not Cole’s way. He soon discovers there’s more to this case than a missing geek and his model friend and it’s got very little to do with UFOs. What evidence there is points towards City Hall, not the night sky. So, how are Josh and Skylar connected to a possible political corruption case and corporate greed?

Cole discovers Skylar is trying to make it as an artist. Her work is being shown at a local gallery but until her career takes off she hasn’t left her former life behind yet. Skylar doesn’t just make film’s, she’s an escort. Maybe she witnessed something, got too close to the wrong people. Cole starts poking around, he’s not the only one trying to find Josh. When a car tries to mow him down he turns to his partner Joe Pike for help.

Meanwhile Cole’s ex-girlfriend, Lucy Chenier, is coming back to town with her son. She wants to stay with Cole. They have things to talk about. The two have a complicated past. Her ex was a serious problem but so was Cole’s dangerous job. Do they have a future, is that why Lucy is back.

Racing the Light is a relatively straightforward mystery, beautifully honed and cleverly disguised to keep us guessing. It comes to life thanks to an intriguing and colourful cast of characters, fizzy dialogue and a strong dose of humour, particularly Cole’s wry view of life. Pike and Cole are without a doubt one of the best detective pairings out there. Josh and Adele are wacky marginal characters. What we know about them at the start doesn’t elicit much sympathy but Crais makes them very real and our empathy grows. Cole can’t help getting in deep but the beauty is Pike is the man you want to turn to in a tight corner.

Tough, funny and hugely entertaining – superbly crafted crime fiction in the best traditions of the PI novel. It’s easy to see why Robert Crais has won many major prizes for his writing, he’s spot on here.

For a different take on California there’s always Michael Connelly’s The Dark Hours or a slightly darker vision of LA in A Man Named Doll by Jonathan Ames.

Simon & Schuster
Print/Kindle/iBook
£8.99

CFL Rating: 5 Stars

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