THE SENTRY by Robert Crais

Book Quote:

“I… help people. I’m good at it.”

Book Review:

Review by Hagen Baye  (MAR 19, 2011)

The latest and 14th installment of Robert Crais’s Elvis Cole/Joe Pike crime fiction series is The Sentry, denominated “A Joe Pike Novel.” The Sentry is the third Pike book of the series, the other eleven being Elvis Cole novels. In retrospect, however, L.A. Requiem, the series’ 8th book, should have been also denoted a Pike novel, for the Joe Pike character is the principal actor in that 1999 book. It is possible that Crais had not determined at that juncture that Pike would shed a secondary role from time to time as he has now done, starting with The Watchman in 2007, followed by The First Rule in 2010 and most recently with The Sentry.

L.A. Requiem is significant in that it reflected a shift in Crais’s focus regarding his private detective partners Cole and Pike. With L.A. Requiem, he starts to delve into the issues—both those arising from their youth and from the nature of their work—that confront these two highly skilled and courageous men. The pre-L.A. Requiem series books established Cole as a whacky, wise-cracking, crazy Hawaiian shirt kind of guy, who touted himself as the “World’s Greatest Detective.” That pose of Cole is much more subdued in L.A. Requiem and the following books and, significantly, The Sentry is the first book where the words “World’s Greatest Detective” do not even appear.

On the other hand, Pike, the ex-marine, ex-LAPD officer, ex-mercenary for hire (for the right cause), is forever stoic and withdrawn, except the issues that affect him are more in the forefront starting with L.A. Requiem. In particular, as a youngster his inability to stop his abusive father’s violence against his mother and himself motivated him to prepare himself to be an effective defender and protector against such aggression. After being able to handle his father, his goal to thwart bullies and the like motivated him to enlist in the Marine Corps to perfect his fighting skills, after which the LAPD was his career choice. However, when his LAPD partner commits suicide, Pike sacrifices his beloved badge by making it appear that he accidentally shot the partner, so the partner’s family would receive the benefit checks that would have otherwise been forfeited by the partner’s suicide. While Pike accepted his great sacrifice without seeming regret or bitterness, it undoubtedly was something that drove Pike to withdraw further “into that secret place that only he knew.” (An ironic by-product of this sacrifice was the enmity visited upon Pike by his fellow officers who blamed him for his partner’s death. This enmity persists in The Sentry, as the principal detective in the story was a LAPD contemporary of Pike’s and his intense dislike of Pike is quite evident.)

Shadowing the events of The Sentry is the nightmare Elvis Cole has at the beginning of the book that introduces a sense of foreboding. Cole is awakened by a dream where his best friend and partner Joe Pike is shot to death. Cole is kept awake disturbed by the impact that the violence that permeates his work has had on his life. Principally, it has caused the woman he loves to forsake him for safer grounds, notwithstanding the fact that the violence he so willingly confronts is in the context of doing good, to stop/prevent terrible persons from doing harm to innocent people. This issue has disturbed him since L.A. Requiem and the books that follow.

The Sentry centers on Pike’s relationship with a young woman. Dru Rayne is introduced to him as the niece of Wilson Smith, a sandwich shop owner. Pike saves Smith from a beating by two Latino “gangbangers,” apparently seeking protection payments from him, albeit Smith appears more resentful than appreciative of Pike’s intervention. Pike is told that Dru and Smith are from New Orleans, having left due to Katrina five years ago with no reason to return. There is an immediate mutual attraction between Dru and Pike. (“She looked at him as if she had never seen anything like him….” “[H]e couldn’t stop looking at her….”)

To her concern that the gangbangers may return and cause more trouble, Pike gives her his personal cell number (and not the business number he gave the police officers who responded to the assault on Smith) and tells her to call him if they do. And, sure enough, the following day, Dru calls Pike as they did return to smash the store’s window and strew paint all over the shop. After surveying the mess, Pike arranges through a community contact to meet with the gangbangers’ leader, their “jefe.” To his surprise, Miguel Azzara, who refers to himself as “Michael,” is clean-cut and preppy, with more of the appearance of a MBA-educated businessman than that of a leader of a street gang. Nevertheless, Azzara assures Pike that his people will leave Dru and Smith alone.

Pike conveys all this to Dru over a lunch “date,” where a relationship continues to develop. In response to Pike’s query about whether she’d go out with him, Dru shows him a picture of her daughter, whom she says is staying with her sister. Pike is touched and so is she to learn that this does not deflect his interest in her. (“…[H]er smile flashed like summer lighting when he asked her out anyway.”) Pike is clearly buoyed by the romantic possibilities with Dru, so much so that he opens up to her about his mercenary work, in part to share intimate information that he rarely shared with anyone (other than Cole) and in part to deflect the negative comments about Pike’s violent propensities spoken to her by the detective assigned to investigate Smith’s beating..

The next day, all hell breaks loose as Pike hears from a police officer looking to locate Smith and Dru. The officer informs him that someone had desecrated their shop by spreading blood and dead animal parts all over the store in an act described as “malicious vandalism.” The person or persons responsible leave an ominous “I AM HERE” message written in blood on the shop wall.

Pike’s call to Dru goes to her voice mail. He is worried that she had not called him and that she does not return his subsequent calls to her. The detective assigned to the assault case reports that Smith had just called him to report that he and Dru were high-tailing it to Oregon. Pike does not believe that’s possible. Dru would have at least informed him of it. Her silence disturbs him. His response is to learn where Dru and Smith are staying and go there to investigate. He eventually learns from a neighbor that one of the gangbangers involved in Smith’s beating had been there earlier that morning.

Pike now fears that Dru and Smith have been abducted. He takes the offensive by “stressing” Azzara. Among other things, he calls him and in response to the jefe’s mention of his alliance with La Eme, the Mexican Mafia, Pike informs Azzara that “War is what I do,” and such alliance did not intimidate in the least.

Pike calls on Cole to assist. First, Cole re-examines Dru and Smith’s house and he confirms that it did not appear that they left in any hurry. However, he also finds evidence that someone else had broken in since Pike had been there earlier.

Then, matters are taken up a significant notch when the two gangbangers who had attacked Smith are found viciously massacred by some extremely strong, skilled murderer while they were apparently serving as lookouts overseeing Smith’s and Dru’s house. The manner in which they are butchered lead Pike and Cole to conclude that there must be some mysterious third party involved, and Pike realizes he has some rethinking to do as all of his assumptions were wrong.

While Pike presses on, Cole does his investigative magic. Noticing Smith & Dru’s neighbor’s security camera, he gets the film covering the moment of truth and it shows Smith and Dru leaving in their car accompanied not only by the gangbanger, but–surprise, surprise!–also by Azzara. But even more bizarre, it does not look like a hostage situation is at play.

Then, tapping his New Orleans connections via former girlfriend Lucy Chenier, he learns that Smith’s and Dru’s names belong to persons who are long dead. Then, via finger prints lifted from cups, cans and other objects Cole took from their house, through the assistance of gawky, goofy John Chen of LAPD’s Scientific Investigations Division (a character who joined the Cole/Pike ensemble in L. A. Requiem), he learns who Smith and Dru really are and that all that they had told Pike about themselves was false. More importantly, he learns that they are being pursued by some professionally trained homicidal psycho, so disturbed that he carries on conversations with imaginary friends, and who has been paid to hunt them down by a Bolivian drug cartel because Smith skipped New Orleans two weeks before, not because of Katrina, with something valuable belonging to the cartel. This guy, dubbed ”the executioner” by the feds, is suspected of killing 8 or 9 persons in the course of chasing after “Smith” and “Dru” across the country, and before this story is over, he will murder another 10. (In fact, were this book ever made into a movie, its credits would list some 30 characters in all. Of these characters, nearly 2/3rds of them would be killed before the movie is over.)

Cole also learns that Dru’s been lying to Pike about the house, about her relationship with Smith (he’s not her uncle), about her kid and sister–about pretty much everything….But none of the lies stop Pike from his desire to save Dru: no matter what, he tells Cole, she’s still in danger and needs their help. (Pike’s remark about being good at helping people was directed to Dru.)

Eventually, there is the inevitable showdown. The executioner having received similar tactical training as Pike (he also worked as a professional mercenary, both Pike and this fellow maneuver with moves and countermoves based on knowing how the other would react. It was like they were playing chess, except for the lives that were at stake. While the madman and Pike talked about exchanging Dru who was with Pike for Smith, whom the madman had gotten hold of, both know they each endeavored to kill the other and to leave with Smith and Dru alive. The maniac’s goal is to torture them to find out where they hid what they stole from the Bolivians, and then kill them. Pike’s goal is to keep them (and Cole and himself) alive. Read The Sentry to see how it all works out.

With The Sentry, Crais does not disappoint with respect to his creating another clever, inventive story. After all, Crais is a masterful story teller. He is particularly adept at how he engineers Pike’s and Cole’s getting to the bottom of what is going on. As their investigation unfolds, the reader cannot be other than impressed by the skills and resources they bring to bear.

Nevertheless, some readers may feel that Crais has not fully delivered on the impending doom forecast raised by Cole’s foreboding nightmare at the start of the book. What follows does not really connect to Cole’s dream at the beginning of the story. Some readers may also be disappointed with Crais’s portrayal of Pike’s relationship with Dru, especially how preliminary it is and how there is no fully developed explanation of Pike’s feelings toward this woman and vice versa,and,  if there truly were any reciprocal feelings on her part toward him. Crais may have intended that this aspect of the book was related to Pike’s “Everybody needs somebody” comment from The First Rule, that connection is not obvious.

Notwithstanding such considerations, even if those issues with Crais represent valid criticisms, they do not detract from The Sentry’s being a great read that is a hard-to-put-down page-turner and a worthy addition to the Cole/Pike series about these two courageous men who are ever willing to put their lives on the line to save others.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 100 readers
PUBLISHER: Putnam Adult; First Edition (January 11, 2011)
REVIEWER: Hagen Baye
EXTRAS: Excerpt

Publisher page & video on The Sentry

MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:

The First Rule

The Watchman

Chasing Darkness

The Forgotten Man

The Last Detective


Elvis Cole / Joe Pike series:

Joe Pike / Elvis Cole Series:


Movies from books:

March 19, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: California, Character Driven, Sleuths Series, Thriller/Spy/Caper, y Award Winning Author

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