Reread Project: Voodoo River by Robert Crais

36 hours behind schedule. For anyone tracking, I’m sorry and I’ll try to do better.

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Voodoo River (Elvis Cole, #5)Voodoo River

by Robert Crais
Series: Elvis Cole, #5

Mass Market Paperback, 416 pages
Published April 1st 1996 by Hyperion
Read: September 3 – 4, 2014


Many people see L. A. Requiem as the apex of the Cole series. For my money, Voodoo River is the apex of the series that began in The Monkey’s Raincoat — he’s thoughtful, more meditative, yet still jokey. There’s a greater sense of place than in most of the earlier books. Elvis is vulnerable, yet just as competent and confident as he’s been the whole time we’ve known him. I’ll explain my thinking here and different take on Requiem in a few weeks when we get to it.

Once again, we open with a great description of his new client:

“Excuse us, but are you Jodi Taylor?”
In the space of a breath Jodi Taylor put away the things that troubled her and smiled the smile that thirty million Americans saw every week. It was worth seeing. Jodi Taylor was thirty-six years old, and beautiful in the way that only women with a measure of maturity can be beautiful. Not like in a fashion magazine. Not like a model. There was a quality of realness about her that let you feel that you might meet her in a supermarket or in church or at the PTA. She had hazel eyes and dark skin and one front tooth slightly overlapped the other. When she gave you the smile her heart smiled, too, and you felt it was genuine. Maybe it was that quality that was making her a star.
. . .
Jodi smiled wider, and if you had never before met or seen her, in that moment you would fall in love.

When we meet her, Jodi Taylor is the star of one of the biggest shows on television, but thirty-six years ago when no one cared who she was, she was an orphan — given up for adoption by her mother. She was raised by a loving couple who she considers her parents — she’s not on a search for her roots, her “real” mother or anything like that. But she’s curious about her medical history, worried about what genetic time-bombs might be ticking away inside her. So she hires Elvis — on the recommendation of Peter Alan Nelson — to go to Louisiana and work with an attorney specializing in adoption to find her birth parents and get this information.

Despite the strictness of the adoption laws in the Pelican State, it seems like a pretty straight-forward case, and after arriving in Baton Rouge, sampling some local cuisine, and consulting with the attorney, Lucy Chenier, Elvis gets to work and it doesn’t take long for him to make some solid progress.

Here’s where complications set in: someone starts trailing Elvis as he investigates, this person seems to have some sort of criminal ties, and the biggest complication of all: Lucy Chenier. Elvis is smitten with her. Almost immediately, and more and more so in every conversation afterwards. This isn’t some sort of passing fancy, as was the case with Janet Simon; or the creepy, drunken attraction for Jennifer Sheridan; or whatever he had going with his office neighbor, Cindy. Elvis falls for this woman, hard. That’s clear for the reader straightaway, the only question is what impact that’ll have on Elvis, his current investigation, and maybe his future. Elvis even has the beginning of a relationship with her son, Ben.

As for the guy following him? He’s not that good at it, and he’s even worse at picking up a tail. Elvis is able to exploit his deficient skills and learn a few things that get him closer to finding Jodi’s mother. And that’s when things get really nasty — Elvis finds himself in the middle of a decades’ old crime, a murder investigation and caught between three criminal organizations. Given that, naturally, Joe finds himself in Louisiana, too.

So the first of the criminal enterprises is a local group — run by a good ol’ boy-type. Milt Rossier isn’t going to catch the attention of anyone i New York, Miami or even New Orleans. But in his small pond, he is one huge fish. He does a little bit of everything, has some very loyal employees (including a scary George and Lenny like pair) and an old, huge and vicious turtle named Luther. Luther is described as “a snapping turtle that had to be three feet across and weigh almost two hundred pounds. It was dark and primordial with a shell like tank armor and a great horned head and a monstrous beak.” Gives me the heebie-jeebies just to read about him. Milt reminded me of Domingo Garcia Duran from The Monkey’s Raincoat, using toreo to intimidate and threaten Elvis. However, Duran only served to anger Elvis, make him more determined. Milt and Luther? They brought out something we’d not yet seen in Elvis — we’ve sen him angry, we’ve seen him morose, we’ve seen him lost, but after his session with Luther? He’s shaken, he’s frightened to his core. I don’t know if it’s Milt, the reaction of the others there, or just Elvis’ reaction to the reptilian Luther versus the human threat of Duran — but it’s something deeper we see here.

Another one of the groups that Elvis tangles with is headed by Frank Escobar. Escobar’s a criminal mastermind who looks nothing like what you’d expect (which likely means he’s more realistic than the rest), he’s this friendly middle-aged guy with a hospitable wife and kid. Just hanging out having gin and tonics next to the pool, the kind f guy you want as a neighbor. Until he gets angry. You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry. He’s the kind of crook that I’d love to read more about.

As far as the third? Well, we don’t get to know them too much — it’s basically Escobar’s group, but larger and with a head who’s not so cuddly.

You put Elvis in the middle of all that while trying to sort out one family’s problems — past and present? Well, it’ll take he and Joe at the top of their game. Hopefully Elvis can get his head cleared enough, but at least we don’t have to worry about Joe — I’m not sure that Joe has anything but the top of his game.

Elvis’ jokes are there, but they’re subdued. Elvis has found himself in the middle of some really nasty stuff — the adoption as well as the criminal activity he stumbled into — and it’s hard to joke his way through it, but he does as often as possible. Still, there is room for him to be something other than just the crime-fighter. As long as Lucy Chenier’s around, Elvis will make time.

When they first meet, Elvis asks her out — and is turned down, after all, they work together. He keeps after her, and while I’m not saying he wore her down, she eventually takes him to dinner at a local restaurant. What follows is possibly the funniest thing in the series so far as Elvis tries to 1. be charming, 2. not get drunk and 3. keep things cool with Lucy. But he does something right, probably later, because they have another dinner or two together, and well, a lot more.

Later, when things are going better, Elvis will spend time with Lucy and Ben at home enjoying a quiet evening hanging out and watching Star Trek: The Next Generation:

It was the one where you follow the android, Data, through a twenty-four-hour period in his life, most of which is spent attempting to comprehend the vagaries of the humans around him. The fun comes in watching the logical, emotionless Data try to make sense of the human condition, which is akin to trying to make sense of the senseless. He never quite gets it, but he always keeps trying, writing endless programs for his android brain, trying to make the calculus of human behavior add up. When you think about it, that is not so different from what I do.

Yeah, it’s a little heavy-handed, but I liked it.

Of course, Joe and Lucy met. And it’s fun to read.

“It was a pleasure, Joe. You’re an interesting man.”
Pike said, “Yes.”
Lucy gave me a kiss, then let herself out and went into her building. I twisted around in the seat and looked at Joe. “She says you’re interesting and you say yes?”
Pike got out of the back and into the front. “Did you want me to lie?”

We see something new happen to Pike here. But — see that one for yourself. It’s refreshing (like in Lullaby Town) to see Pike interact with the police without pushback or resentment (or something worse). There’s plenty of opportunity for Elvis’ warrior friend to do what he does best. There’s even some opportunities for Elvis and Joe to just hang out, work out together, and talk. They get to interact as friends a little, not just partners. We need to see more of this. At one point, we get what’s possibly Pike’s biggest speech since the one he gave Ellen Lang in Monkey and just as on point. He really helps Elvis keep his head when he disappoints Jodi. Lots of warm fuzzies are to be had there.

There’s some interesting things said here about honor (not in the way that Parker does, it’s under the dialogue and narration, almost never the subject of it), conscience, and duty. Really, there’s a straight line from Elvis assuring Ellen Lang that he’d help her, through tearing up her father’s check and hunting down Mimi Warren, through doing all he could to help Karen Lloyd, to Jennifer Sheridan to Jodi and her family. It’s the same impulse driving Elvis (and therefore Joe). This impulse, this drive is what unites Elvis and Joe to the hard-boiled PI legacy, but their application of it is what helps distinguish them from others. As I recall, there’s a change in the wings for how Elvis approaches things, making this the apex of Stage I of the Cole series, if not the whole.

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5 Stars

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