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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
In recent years, a number of established suspense writers -- Robert B. Parker, Jonathan Kellerman, and Walter Mosley spring immediately to mind -- have shown a commendable willingness to take chances, to run the risk of alienating their audiences by trying something altogether new. In the large majority of these cases, change has had a positive, even liberating effect and has resulted in a number of memorable novels, including Family Honor, Billy Straight, and Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned. The latest manifestation of this burgeoning trend comes from Robert Crais, Edgar-nominated author of L.A. Requiem. Crais's latest, Demolition Angel, is his tenth novel and the first in which neither Elvis Cole nor Joe Pike makes an appearance. It is also, to my mind, the best novel Crais has written to date.
Like Crais's earlier books, Demolition Angel is set in the violent, vibrantly rendered world of modern Los Angeles. It is, in fact, linked to those earlier books through a number of small, unobtrusive narrative threads. This time, though, the protagonist is a damaged young woman named Carol Starkey, a plainclothes detective whose life is in a state of extreme disarray. Earlier in her career, Carol worked as a technician for the LAPD bomb squad and spent her professional life investigating -- and frequently disarming -- homemade bombs of various types. That phase of her career ended when a low-level earthquake detonated a device that Carol, together with her partner and lover, Sugar Boudreaux, were attempting to neutralize. Sugar died instantly. Carol also "died" but was eventually revived, despite massive damage to the entire right side of her body. Now, three years later, Carol works for the CCS -- the LAPD's Criminal Conspiracy Section -- although her real life effectively ended on the day of the explosion. She is still haunted by nightmares, sleeps barely two hours a night, and appears to subsist on gin, cigarettes, and Tagamet. She has no friends, no love life, and nothing to live for but her job.
As Demolition Angel opens, Carol is assigned to investigate the death of Charlie Riggio, a bomb squad technician who is blown apart by a remote-controlled device of unusual power. The distinctive composition of this bomb -- its unusual components and idiosyncratic construction -- seems to reflect the signature of an elusive psychopath known simply as Mr. Red, a garrulous monster who builds bombs for pleasure and profit and whose governing desire is to earn a spot on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list. As a result of Mr. Red's rumored involvement, the federal government intervenes, and Carol finds herself forcibly partnered with a troubled, secretive ATF agent named Jack Pell.
Pell's involvement complicates matters in a number of ways. First, Carol finds herself reluctantly -- almost shamefully -- attracted to him. Against her better judgment, she allows Pell to influence certain aspects of her investigation and even finds herself withholding information from her fellow investigators in the CCS. At about the same time, she uncovers forensic evidence that opens up a new possibility: Charlie Riggio was killed not by Mr. Red but by a mysterious, well-informed copycat. This possibility changes the nature of the entire investigation, which culminates, eventually, in a series of dramatic encounters with Jack Pell; the upper echelons of the LAPD; a vivid assortment of felons, killers, and demolition hobbyists; and, finally, with Mr. Red himself. With great skill and unstoppable narrative momentum, Crais leads both Carol and the reader through a complex maze of surprises and hidden agendas to a tense, satisfying, and literally explosive conclusion.
Crais is in the top of his game in this one, and he gets all the details, large and small, exactly right. His portrait of the hazards of a bomb technician's life is chilling and convincing. His corollary portrait of the deranged subculture of bomb enthusiasts -- loners and misfits who build elaborate web sites dedicated to the joys of demolition and gather together in clandestine chat rooms to feed their demented obsession -- is equally chilling and opens up a little-known corner of the modern world. Mostly, though, Demolition Angel draws its strength -- and a great deal of its essential character -- from Crais's empathetic presentation of Carol Starkey, a haunted, enormously vulnerable survivor who has almost -- but not quite -- withdrawn from the world of quotidian human concerns. She is the vital human center of this involving book, and I hope to encounter her again.
Like L.A. Requiem, Demolition Angel is the clear product of a good writer who is constantly getting better and steadily moving his fiction into new and unexpected areas. It's possible, I suppose, that admirers of the Elvis Cole books will be disappointed by this temporary departure, but they shouldn't be. Demolition Angel is an excellent novel, a first-rate thriller, and a big step forward for an adventurous writer who has all the moves and who could become the king of the hill in his crowded, highly competitive field.