Robert Crais’s latest offering is labeled on its cover as “A Joe Pike Novel,” and indeed, a great deal of the book is turned over to Joe Pike as he attempts to aid --- and then locate --- a damsel in distress for whom he falls fast and hard, if not wisely. The meat of the novel, however, features Pike and Elvis Cole operating in tandem, with Cole sliding in neatly about midway through and playing an extremely important role. The result features both characters, not to mention their creator, at their best.
THE SENTRY begins with a chilling vignette against the backdrop of the landfall of Hurricane Katrina before switching locales to modern-day Los Angeles, where Pike, with some deliberation and intent, is walking into an attempted shakedown of a struggling restaurateur by a couple of gangbangers tied to a Mexican cartel. The victim, Wilson Smith, reacts oddly to his rescuer, treating Pike with a demeanor that almost approaches resentment. But it’s Smith’s partner in the shop who attracts Pike’s interest. Dru Rayne tells Pike that she and her uncle are Katrina evacuees who have landed hard in Los Angeles and are attempting to put their lives together. Pike is drawn to the woman for a number of reasons on a number of levels, and fully intends to advance their relationship. He goes through unofficial channels to head off the gangbangers, and for a brief moment the matter seems to be resolved.
The dust has barely settled, however, before a series of events leads to catastrophe. First, Pike is warned away from Smith and Rayne by local and federal law enforcement who have been watching the shakedown with the aim of bringing down the cartel. The restaurant is bizarrely and horrifically vandalized shortly thereafter, and Smith and Rayne disappear. Pike believes they have been kidnapped, or worse, and calls Cole in for help.
As the two men begin a frantic search to locate the missing pair, Cole discovers that Rayne and Smith are not who they seem and that everything Pike thought he knew about the woman to whom he has become strongly attracted is wrong. Worse, the troubled past that Smith and Rayne had hoped to have left in New Orleans is about to catch up with them in a very bad and dangerous way, and the force behind it is welcoming a deadly encounter with Pike.
One gets the sense right away that Crais has another winner on his hands with THE SENTRY. But what becomes evident after just a handful of chapters is that he takes his work to an entirely new level. In some ways, this is the ultimate “buddy” book. Cole is there for Pike when he needs him, but he’s also there to deliver an unvarnished, truthful version of the worst news. At the same time, Crais gives his readers sides of both Pike and Cole we have never seen. Cole steps out of his wisecracking demeanor in ways that are unexpected, while Pike reveals a vulnerable veneer that may get him seriously hurt. And while things tie up at the end (though not nicely or neatly), it is a sure bet that neither man will be the same afterward.
This is dark, brilliant writing, crime fiction that transcends the genre and remains indelibly stamped in the memory long after the closing words are read.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on March 28, 2011