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Mystery readers have devoured the exploits of private investigator Elvis Cole and his partner, Joe Pike, since The Monkey’s Raincoat hit the streets in 1987. Since then, the L.A.-based Robert Crais has had a regular home on the New York Times Bestseller List, and he’s been awarded some of the mystery genre’s highest honors (the Macavity Award, the Shamaus Award). None of which, by the way, he expected to happen.

“Woman, have you lost your mind?” Crais asks rhetorically, laughing on the other end of the phone. “No way did I expect this. My first two manuscripts before The Monkey’s Raincoat were utter disasters. And when I wrote that one, I was just trying to write a story that would not embarrass me.”

Robert crais   credit photograph of the author   2009 exley foto  inc. usjqsz

Robert Crais.

Image: Exley Foto

In fact, when that first novel came out in 1987, Crais readily admits he was “at the bottom of the publishing pile.” The Monkey’s Raincoat was a mass-market paperback that came out with no fanfare and no press or marketing power behind it.

“So, me being me," says Crais, "I rolled up my sleeves and said, ‘What can I do to sell my books?’”

He researched bookstores around the country that specialized in mystery and crime writing, and landed on Houston’s Murder by the Book.

“I cold-called them,” he says. “And I spoke to someone who was super nice and said, ‘Will you please read my book?’ And I sent off an inscribed copy. Since that time—and it was a long time ago—I’ve become friends in deep ways with the people there, through staff changes, ownership changes. I consider them family. My entire history, 21 books have touched that store.”

So Crais is not only grateful but excited to be heading back to Houston this weekend for a discussion and signing of his latest novel in the Elvis Cole/Joe Pike series, The Wanted. Published at the end of last month, it finds the wry, foodie PI helping a single mother looking to find out why her kid is suddenly showing up wearing expensive clothes and on a spending spree. Turns out he’s part of robbery spree with some fellow young adults. As if that weren’t problematic enough, they’ve managed to rip off something a certain person will do anything to get back—including hiring hit men to go after the robbers. It’s a story that’s a thrill ride of cat-and-mouse, as Cole and Pike try to keep one step ahead of the hit squad in keeping everyone safe.

The book is the 17th in the series, and in the three decades since Crais has been writing the characters, he’s enjoyed the evolution.

“I made Elvis a private investigator on purpose,” he says. “I didn’t want him to be a cop or an FBI agent or a lawyer. I wanted someone, by definition, who was an outsider, who didn’t have this huge support network. He’s on his own. And I’ve been able to use his clients to explore who he is and how he’s grown.”

Over the course of writing the novels, he’s learned to trust his process more than he did in the beginning.

“[The finished book] should be akin to watching Fred Astaire dance," says Crais. "You don’t see the years of practice or nursing bad ankles. Writing is a blue-collar effort, revising and honing. And as I write, sometimes I find Elvis will course correct. I might push him to the left and he’ll push back to the right. It’s really become a collaboration with me and the characters. It’s fun.”

Crais knows he’ll be able to share that fun with fans at the Murder by the Book event, which is a combination Q&A session and signing.

“I really look forward to it. McKenna Jordan—Murder by the Book’s owner—is great. The staff is great. The readers are great—they know my work better than I do,” he says. “And some of them, I’ve come to know. I can be relaxed there, and it’s a great, good time.”

Robert Crais will sign copies of The Wanted and answer reader questions at 4 p.m. Sunday, Jan 7. Murder by the Book, 2342 Bissonnet St. 713-524-8597. More info at murderbooks.com.

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