Last year’s release of the 13th book in the Elvis Cole and Joe Pike novels by Robert Crais inspired a series at my old blog. It examined each novel (to that point) and the audiobook versions that came out of them. My thirteenth and end review in the arc (last year in April), was only partially complete, however. This piece updates the entry.
Years ago, television writer/producer Crais turned away from Hollywood and began his migration to novelist. He originated a quirky but distinctive private detective with the unlikely name of Elvis Cole, and his memorable laconic partner, Joe Pike. That first book’s success, The Monkey’s Raincoat, brought the P.I. genre something extraordinary byway of the author’s writing style and remarkable characterizations. The humor that epitomizes Robert Crais’ work, along with the rich relationships and poignancy of his stories, brought the soon-to-be-popular books to the fore of the mystery crime class. While the series is on its third decade with publishers and admirers, Elvis and Joe still continue to earn new fans with each new book release.
The First Rule
The First Rule was print published January 2010 in hardcover for the U.S. market and is pictured above. The paperback (which debuted months later in December of that year) uses the same artwork — and is in sharp contrast of the U.K. release. This cover art reaches back to previously established L.A. cityscape views of earlier books and returns fan favorite Joe Pike to the forefront with his second book. I could attempt my synopsis of this novel, but I’ll highlight the one done by Corey Wilde in November 2009, instead:
“When Frank Meyers, ex-mercenary turned husband-father-businessman-upstanding citizen, is murdered along with his wife and children in a home invasion, Joe Pike takes strong exception. The dead man had been one of Pike’s men during his professional soldier days. And Meyer wasn’t just another soldier; he was the one man all the other soldiers thought had a real chance at a normal life. And Frank was succeeding – or was he? Pike will do whatever he must to find and bring down the killers, and learn the truth about his friend.”
Whereas the author in the previous Joe Pike novel (The Watchman) had the taciturn one immediately trading gunshots this side of the prologue, here our protagonist is confronted with the brutal loss of a friend from his past. Essentially, what Robert Crais sets up from the start is a story of friendships and family, with L.A.’s Serbian mob serving as the counterpoint to Joe Pike. The thieves code, referred to by the novel’s title, follows the Russian mobster’s principle that nothing is more important than the gang they belong to (and family and children do not matter). Here, they’ll be pitted against the one person where friendship means just about everything (including the guiding morality he’s crafted). Because of this, Pike is placed once more in the preferred role of his fan base — that of the lethal hunter. Still, as he’s done many times before, Crais manages to surprise readers with the depth of his two lead characters in this chain of novels. As Corey wrote,
“… as a result, instead of a generic action-thriller with a cardboard superman, the story carries an emotional wallop that resonates long after the last gun is fired.”
As has been his inclination with the novels, the author brings back and expands on a character seen in earlier books (namely The Last Detective and The Watchman) — that of Jon Stone. The former-mercenary and current Professional Military Contractor broker brings an added level of passion to these proceedings. Though the reader can spot elements of both Joe and Elvis in his personality, he is an altogether unique persona (and one you want to read more of). As fans have come to expect, he’s a marvelous addition to the carefully crafted character universe by this novelist. However, everything still orbits around Elvis and Joe. It’s stated best by Robert Crais himself:
“… I could no more write a Joe Pike novel without Elvis than I could write an Elvis Cole novel without Joe. These guys are more than partners. They are friends. They are two underdogs who have turned themselves into heroes.”
Brilliance Audio, as expected, used the same artwork as that of the U.S. hardcover and paperback. What was startling, however, was their answer to the retirement of their most experienced U.S. audiobook narrator of the series, James Daniels (who now practices law). This time, the publisher sought out the author to read both the audio unabridged and abridged versions for the new release. As I covered in this series, Crais has had experience in doing the abridged audiobooks, The Forgotten Man and his standalone novel Hostage, for this publisher. As the author told book tour audiences last year, Brilliance asked him if he’d take over reader duties for this novel. In the past, such a job would have taken him away from his L.A. home/writing routine and required him to travel to the publisher’s home base in Michigan. Nevertheless, they wanted him enough for this novel’s audio publication they brought out a studio crew to Los Angeles for this stint. All in all, he spent 6 days recording both versions. For this novel, author Robert Crais performed his first unabridged reading (8:12 run-time), along with its abridged (4:36) double-duty.
Normally, my audiobook experience warns me off authors reading their own books — the lone exception being those reading their non-fiction bio work (Jake Adelstein with his Tokyo Vice book and Adrienne Barbeau’s memoir are excellent examples of this). Many authors tend to be out of their depth, and lack the vocal, linguistic, and/or acting skills to pull it off (*cough* Mark Bowden). So, I was apprehensive when BA announced my favorite author as the The First Rule‘s narrator prior to its release. I have to admit, though, I was pleasantly amazed when I began reviewing the author’s earlier abridged audio work during this series. The author’s unabridged TFR reading was likely his best vocal work with BA. Although, I noted Brilliance sound engineers did not enhance the recording with their hallmark phone modulation touches as they’ve done with other productions (perhaps, this was due to working away from their home studio). Crais, in my opinion, is at his best voicing Joe, Elvis, and Jon Stone in the audiobook. Conversely, he is weaker where I’d expect — foreign accents and multiple character vocalizations (especially those of the women). Still, his reading involved the listener, and that’s all that really matters for audio and series fans. The unabridged sample passage is below:
[Note: I really wanted to contrast the passage on the shorter version, but that same portion of the conversation does not exist on the abridgment. Take that as you will.]
As near as I can tell, the UK BBC unabridged audiobook (using their longtime series veteran narrator William Roberts) was released overseas in November of 2010. Their artwork, as mentioned, differs keenly with the American audio publisher, and follows their habit of using the same artwork from the Orion hardback. Based upon my 8 hour and 42 minute listener experience with the Chivers audiobook, it has caused me to walk back some of my earlier evaluation and enthusiasm with the U.S. edition. I guess I shouldn’t be shocked, but I found myself more emotionally involved with narrator Roberts’ reading. As well, all the aspects I looked past in the Brilliance Audio variant (the flatter, less nuanced narration), I reveled in here. If anything, the American-born British narrator (and the only one who has read every novel in the series, save one) is all about delivering a distinct and memorable performance, for studio managers and his audiobook fans alike. While the tenor of Robert Crais’ voice is what I’d (and others) characterize for the singular Joe Pike (it is easily the best thing I enjoyed about his reading), the presentation of the story, in this instance, by his United Kingdom analog puts it in another category. It is a different tale and experience altogether in his hands. Sorry to say this, but there it is. Here is Mr. Roberts’ clip of the same passage:
Coming up: The Sentry (2011)
The Series (archived):
The Monkey’s Raincoat
Stalking the Angel
The Last Detective
The Forgotten Man
The First Rule