REVIEW: Robert Crais has two persistent themes throughout his books: that people are rarely what they seem, and the nature of father-son relationships and their outcome. Both themes permeate this newest Joe Pike story. Matter of fact, they permeate Pike himself in this story. To provide more detail would be criminal, because as good as the first Joe Pike book (The Watchman) was - and it was a winner - The First Rule outclasses it in every way.
For starters, The Watchman was dominated by the action. Crais neatly layered in some very subtle touches about Pike's true character, but a first-time reader of his books might have overlooked the author's deft handling by being so focused on the action. While there is plenty of action in The First Rule, being the hunter this time around rather than the hunted allows more space to get inside Pike's head, to see what he sees, and to get some inkling of what he's feeling. For Pike is no violent automaton as some of his critics have charged, and there are things, events, people that can actually sway him from his chosen course. Pike, like so many of Crais's characters, is not always what he seems. And yet, Pike is always true to that part of his nature that Crais has revealed in previous books.
Secondly, because Pike's involvement in this case is personal right from the beginning, the reader develops an empathy with him and his mission. That was a little harder to do in The Watchman when Pike took the job of bodyguard solely to repay a favor and because the object of his protection was initially so unlikeable. But in this newest story, right from the time Pike learns of his friend's death, the reader discovers some of Pike's hidden nature. Don't get me wrong, this story never gets maudlin. (Pike would have to kill somebody if that happened, right, Mr. Crais?) But all along the way, as the search for the killers narrows and as new twists arise to confuse or thwart Pike's path to retribution, thin seemingly-contradictory layers of the Pike persona are revealed. No one doubts that Pike can, will, and does kill. That the reader can then also come to believe in his capacity for an exquisite tenderness is due to Crais's magical gift for characterization. And 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.
Fans of the John Chen and Carol Starkey characters may feel a little shortchanged by how little face time Chen gets with Pike, and Starkey has no presence at all. Chen always provides wonderful comic relief as well as assisting with evidence to help move the story forward. But Chen and Starkey shouldn't be missed much since Crais naturally and wisely brought back the Jon Stone character, another of Pike's merc buddies. Stone is a highly vocal, less disciplined and more obviously passionate guy than Pike, but that his skills are almost as deadly does not come into question. Stone's the kind of guy who could sip whisky and laugh at a dirty limerick while he's slicing out someone's gizzard. As for Elvis Cole, in the exchanges between Cole and Pike, we see Cole becoming more and more concerned about Joe's actions, because Joe - as all Pike fans know - is only concerned with what is right, not what is legal. And it's not that Cole cares so much about what's legal; he cares about Joe and the damage he could do to himself.
For readers wondering whether to try a Crais novel for the first time, certainly you should but don't start with The First Rule. That would be cheating yourself. To fully appreciate the character of Pike, his friendship with PI Elvis Cole, his stoic nature, and his lethal skills, start back at the beginning with The Monkey's Raincoat. For Crais's fans who've been keeping up to date with Elvis and Joe, open The First Rule and dive in head first. It's been a long, long wait for this book, but it's been worth it.
Disclosure notice: A copy of this book was provided by the publisher (or his agent) at no charge to me. The publisher (or his agent) neither stipulated nor received from me any promise that the book would be the subject of an endorsement or review, either positive or negative.