Books can really change lives — just ask best-selling crime writer Robert Crais.
Aged 15, he picked up a second-hand paperback of Raymond Chandler's Little Sister in a Louisiana bookstore.
"I didn't know who Chandler was and, truthfully, I only bought it because it had a hot chick on the cover," says Crais, laughing. "But that was my gateway drug into crime fiction and the beginning of my fascination with the city of LA. Before that, what I knew about LA was from the TV show The Rockford Files, which I also loved, but Chandler showed it to me in a literary way."
A few years later, Crais dropped out of Louisiana State University, a semester short of graduation, and headed to the Master's hunting ground. If Chandler had a love/hate relationship with LA — he once called it "a city with all the personality of a paper cup" — it's a city that's been very good to Crais.
He's lived there, in a house high in the Santa Monica mountains, ever since those end of college days. Soon after landing in town in the mid-70s, he started a lucrative career writing for TV shows, mostly character-driven ones like Hill Street Blues, Cagney and Lacey, Miami Vice. But after a decade, the strictures of TV writing started to grate and that dream of being a novelist charting LA's dark side didn't die in the sunshine. Crais quit the steady pay cheque and hunkered down to write.
His debut, 1987's The Monkey's Raincoat, introduced wise-cracking private investigator Elvis Cole and his off-sider, sullen and inscrutable ex-marine Joe Pike. Crais hasn't looked back; his ambitious 1999 novel L.A. Requiem, considered one of his finest novels, saw him take his writing in new directions — toning down Cole's jokey asides, introducing multiple storylines with a darker edge and finally explaining some of Pike's troubled backstory.
Now his 21st novel, The Wanted, sees Cole helping a single mum who finds a $40,000 Rolex in her teenage son's bedroom; figuring correctly that he's involved in some kind of criminal activity, she calls Cole (Pike's involved but Cole's centre stage in this one). Crais says most of his books are borne from moments and The Wanted was no exception.
"I knew I had this story when I had the scene where Elvis is alone in his house with his cat, and he's making dinner, and the woman who was supposed to be coming over cancels. So there's just Elvis and his cat in this A-frame house at night and then Elvis has this line, 'I don't have kids, I have a cat'.
"That was a story I wanted to tell — what's under that moment?
"He's still a relatively young man. He's come close to marriage a few times but it's never happened and he's at a time in his life where he wants that stability in his life. And along comes this woman, Devon — a single mum and her teenage son Tyson — and he's given the opportunity to be this surrogate father, save Tyson and help him become the man he wants to be."
If Crais talks about Cole and Pike as if they are entities separate from himself, he admits there's an inevitable element of autobiography, too. Cole shares Crais' love of loud Hawaiian shirts and he often sends the characters on runs that mirror his own routes through the hills around his home.
It still gives me the sense that absolutely anything can happen here.
"All writers are cannibals. As a writer you devour yourself and transmogrify it into your characters; so sure, there are aspects of myself in Elvis and Joe, but I'm not Elvis — well, maybe when I'm off my meds and had too much to drink — but the characters are real to me in the sense that I've spent so much time with them now I know who they are as human beings.
"But Elvis and I have distinct differences because if we didn't I'd probably be in a mental hospital. I know where the boundaries are and how to guide and create both Elvis and Joe as a writer."
Although even after 30 years, Crais still has no idea what Cole or Pike looks like and has resisted multiple film and TV offers to adapt the series. Perhaps because he says that if he saw their faces he wouldn't be able to write them.
He believes we're now in a golden age of television (he's a big Game of Thrones fan) and sees it inspiring new writers in much the same way as Chandler inspired him.
"Young writers can't help but be impacted. I think all this great television, and movies, and of course books, will make their work more complex and richer."
A constant in Crais' work is LA itself and he often peppers his novels with some of his favourite food haunts. Indeed, he's received the ultimate gastronomic honour — having a pizza named after him (Italian sausage, mushrooms, artichokes and basil) — at a Venice Beach cafe. The Wanted features a scene at one of Crais' favourites, Downtown LA's Original Pantry.
"I love Los Angeles; I love living here. It's a huge city — 465 square miles — and I love the diversity, the energy. I really love the food, and I put some of that in the books, and because of the way LA is laid out and I love exploring it. This city still gives me the sense that absolutely anything can happen here and that's great for me because in that environment I have endless stories to write."
Next in line for Crais is a Joe Pike novel and if you thought blockbuster crime writers just churned them out after a certain point, consider Crais' daily work routine.
"I don't wait for the muse. I'm a real blue-collar worker. I get up early, get my exercise out of the way, and then I'm in my home office by 7am and I'll write till say 4pm seven days a week. But when deadline's looming that can stretch into a 12-hour day. I'm very disciplined, I'm a guy who sits in a room and types. Don't get me wrong, I love it, but writing's hard work."
by Robert Crais
(Simon & Schuster, $38)