Free Fall

Free Fall_RobertCrais_292210

WE SEE JOE PIKE’S EYES

5 STARS

Jennifer Sheridan stands, wavering, in the open doorway of Elvis Cole’s office for some time before she can finally make herself cross the threshold. In her defense, it must really be hard to tell a perfect stranger, even a private investigator, that you suspect your fiancé has morphed from a wholesome collegiate football hero into a dirty cop.

Four months ago, Mark Thurman changed. He went off to work one day, his usual upbeat self, and came back a different man. Something happened on his job as a plainclothes REACT officer working the gang scene in South Central LA, but he refuses to talk about it with Jennifer. In fact, he refuses to talk much about anything anymore. As a result, their relationship is circling the drain and Jennifer wants to know why.

A few minutes after Jennifer leaves, Mark Thurman shows up on Cole’s doorstep. Only he doesn’t hesitate. He and his partner, Floyd Riggens, barge in and warn Cole off the case, telling Cole that he has a new girlfriend and that he will tell Jennifer, not Cole. Cole refuses Thurman’s demands and Riggens, reeking of booze and brandishing his service weapon, proceeds to attack Cole. Needless to say, that comes to an unhappy conclusion – for Riggins.

It’s easy for Cole to see that Riggins is part of Thurman’s problem. But his LAPD and media contacts pinpoint the problem more succinctly. Several months prior, Mark’s REACT team set up a sting on a pawnshop purportedly dealing in illegal arms and ammunition. In the course of the bust, the pawnshop owner, Charles Lewis Washington, was beaten to death.

The Washington family filed a wrongful death suit against the team even though the review board judged it a righteous kill. But, shortly after the investigation closed, two things occurred, one unusual and very obvious, the other totally unobserved. The unusual incident was that the Washington family dropped the wrongful death suit with no viable explanation and, in the wake of the Rodney King debacle, that was unprecedented.

What wasn’t noticed, at least not immediately, was that all arrests and investigations into the Eighty-Deuce sub-sect of the Crips had stopped. Apparently, with so many other gangs on the streets to attract the cops’ attention, it was easy for the brass to lose sight of one group.

However, Cole learns, in short order, that the real owner of the pawnshop in question is Akeem D’Muere, the leader of the Eighty-Deuce. It is only a short leap in logic for Cole to figure that the death of Washington wasn’t so righteous after all, that D’Muere possesses evidence of that fact, and that D’Muere is essentially holding the REACT team hostage regarding his gang’s activities. Little does Cole know just how deep that hold goes or how far over the line the REACT team leader has already stepped.

In “Free Fall,” Robert Crais created a hard-boiled thriller that would go on to be an Edgar nominee for best novel in 1994. Crais builds the tension slowly, taking the case in a logical and plausible direction from its inception through the normal research and surveillance stage, with a side or two of B&E thrown in for good measure.

And just when it seems as if Mark’s version is really the truth of the matter as far as his relationship with Jennifer is concerned, Crais throws the first twist. Now there is reason for both the reader and Cole to suspect that Mark is not a cheating cad at all but an unwilling accomplice to murder who is lying to protect Jennifer from the blowback. Then, as the story arc builds on that suspicion, Crais tweaks that arc a few degrees, making Cole need Joe Pike – and his guns – for a lot more than back-up surveillance.

However, the defining moment in Crais’ story arc is the scene where Cole’s case goes from being professional to being personal. And by “personal,” I mean Cole facing death, not by bullet or beating but by lethal injection at the hands of the State. Frankly, I would not be surprised if that one scene sealed the book’s nomination for the highest award presented under the Edgar program.

As I write this review in the last month of 2014, it has been 21 years and at least 12 more novels for Elvis Cole and Joe Pike since this entry was published. Thus, those of us just now reading the series know that they survive this. Even realizing that, by the conclusion of this one scene, the tension created by Crais at this point will practically force you to choose between the book and the normal daily activities of eating, sleeping and earning money.

I can only imagine how the reader in 1993 must have felt as Crais’ main twist played out over the next 140 pages. Those readers didn’t have more novels in the series to assure them that all would be reasonably well in the end. In fact, they didn’t know whether this book was, in actuality, the end of the series. Quite frankly, in 1993, it must have been difficult for even the most jaded mystery reader not to skip to the last page to see if Cole and Pike survived.

Cover Art From Goodreads

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