Recipe for a fine summer thriller:
1. Likable yet sassy knight errant hero. (Check.)
2. Fast-paced plot with plenty of twists and turns. (Check.)
3. Setting with both glam and grit. (Check.)
4. Snappy dialogue that minces no verbiage. (Check.)
5. Potential danger lurking around many corners. (Check.)
6. Tantalizing surprise ending. (Check.)
Robert Crais has all those tasty ingredients, in spades, in Chasing Darkness. That should not come as any great shock since the Los Angeles writer has become a regular on the bestseller lists and this is his 11th thriller starring Elvis Cole, an unstoppable force operating in the guise of a yoga-practicing Los Angeles private eye.
Chasing Darkness starts, at many thrillers do, with what seems a cut-and-dried case before unspooling into all sorts of unexpected, tight and untidy corners. Of course, there is a dead body at the outset — what looks to be a clear case of suicide by a single gunshot wound.
The cadaver in question is Lionel Byrd, a hard-core tough who once had been a suspect in the murder of a prostitute. Byrd’s body is discovered holding a scrapbook filled with grisly Polaroid shots of seven murdered young women, including that prostitute (Yvonne Bennett). The death scene suggests a serial murderer undone by long-overdue remorse.
The cops seem convinced, but Cole is not buying it. He knew Byrd a bit, since his investigative work for a powerhouse defense attorney a couple years before had uncovered a video showing Byrd in a scuzzy bar at the time of Bennett’s murder. Charges were dropped, to the consternation of the police.
Since two of the murders occurred after Byrd’s release, the cops come a-callin’ on Cole following the discovery of Byrd’s body. They accuse the private eye of helping to free a serial killer who then proceeded to kill again. Cole is annoyed — convinced that Byrd was no serial killer — but also wary of the devastating charge. He plunges headlong into the case.
It is not long before Cole is butting heads, low and high, including with a deputy police chief named Marx who heads a task force investigating the unsolved serial murders. Cole recounts their first meeting: “Marx was a tall rectangular man built like a sailing ship, with tight skin stretched over a yardarm skeleton. He peered down at me from the crow’s nest like a parrot eyeing a beetle.”
The task force is intent on tying up the cases into a neat little package of Byrd’s suicide, then disbanding amid the headlines and praise of media and public. Cole has his trusted sources, both within the department and the medical examiner’s office. He also enlists the assistance of the attorney who freed Byrd, as well as the reluctant family of one of the murder victims.
The private-eye guy is utterly relentless, bombing hither and yon in his 1966 Corvette, uncovering unquestioned witnesses and unexplained coincidences, but also getting roughed up in an impromptu brawl in the process. “My face,” he admits, “was as tender as an heirloom tomato.”
What Cole soon suspects is a police cover-up that extends to the highest reaches of the department, as well an influential PR firm with heavyweight politico clients. Cole is so convinced he is on the right track that he resorts to skullduggery of the first order — an aided mission inside the police department’s evidence closet, a break-in at the assistant chief’s house. Risky business, needless to say, in extremis.