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The Sunday Conversation: It’s a dog’s life for Robert Crais

The Sunday Conversation: It’s a dog’s life for Robert Crais
Crime novelist Robert Crais at his home in the Hollywood Hills.
(Arkasha Stevenson, Los Angeles Times)

“Suspect,” Robert Crais’ 19th crime novel, which hit bookstores last week, introduces two new characters (and one new species) to the award-winning L.A. author’s repertoire — LAPD cop Scott James and his K-9 partner, Maggie. The former TV writer, born in Louisiana, is perhaps best known for his 15 books featuring unorthodox detective Elvis Cole and his stone-faced partner, Joe Pike.

“Suspect” is about an LAPD officer and an ex-military dog who both have PTSD, which makes them suspect. What inspired your latest buddy mystery?

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It probably grew out of grief that I felt about losing my dog. I’ve always had dogs, ever since I was a boy, and my last dog we got as a puppy. In fact, I picked him out from a litter when he was 3 days old, before his eyes were open.

How did you know he was for you?

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I just loved the way he looked. He was moving and wiggling along with his brothers and sisters. I was drawn to him, and I said, “That’s the guy I want,” and six weeks later I took him home. He was a big guy, an Akita. And for 12 years, he was my boy. And then I lost him.

When was that?

This was 15 years ago. And he died in my arms, and I was just blubbering like a baby. There’s a period where you think, “OK, I’ve lost Yoshi and I’ll get another dog.” And I felt at the time that it would be deeply disloyal. The first few years after that, I just accepted that as a way of life. In fact, there’s an interesting concept that I came to when I began researching military working dogs and police K-9 dogs that the handlers all have, and that’s that the leash is a nerve, that the emotions that are felt between a handler and his or her partner flow through the leash. The years rolled on. You begin to think maybe it’s time, and every time that thought occurred I would feel these terrible pangs of guilt and disloyalty. Three years ago, that occurred again. And I said, “Am I crazy? Why can’t I bring myself to get another dog?”

So the book really came from me doing research into the human-canine relationship, not to find a book. I was trying to figure out whether or not I was nuts.

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In the book, Maggie’s sense of smell is an incredible tool for investigation. What kind of research did you do on that and can they really smell fear?

Sure. What they smell isn’t the emotion of fear. What dogs can smell is the changes in a person’s skin that suggest fear to the dog, anxiety, the way your skin sweats, the amount of uric acid that suddenly pours out of your pores. In fact, if you consider dogs like a German shepherd, which Maggie is, dogs with acute hearing can actually hear your heart beat. The sense of smell in all dogs is their primary doorway to the world around them. The research I did both online and in books and speaking with veterinarians was to learn how dogs actually think, so that when I wrote her, she would be an actual dog. And I think I did that.

Is this the first time you wrote chapters from an animal’s perspective, and why did you do that?

Yes. But the more I learned about the true nature of dogs, the more enamored I became of the emotional closeness that human beings and dogs can share. And that’s what really drove me to write about Maggie and Scott. It was a healing process for me, I think.

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No other animal bonds to a human being the way a dog does. And I suspect there is no other animal to which human beings can bond the way we can bond to a dog.

But you actually have three cats?

Yeah, I love animals. The cats are great. I love cats.

How do they compare for you?

It’s a different kind of love. It’s a different kind of animal. I can’t take my cat for a hike. The canyons where I hike regularly are filled with dog people, and I realized I have to deal with my grief finally. And I think writing the book and being with Maggie the way I was — that may sound psychotic; I don’t mean to say I need medications or anything — but to be in the character’s head as Scott bonds with Maggie and Maggie bonds with Scott was very cathartic for me.

Both of these main characters are emotionally quite scarred, as have been other of your characters, like Carol Starkey and Joe Pike. What attracts you to characters with emotional scars?

I think I like to help them heal. I admire people who re-create themselves. And it seems to me that what gives us all the opportunity to be heroic in our own lives is that we work to heal ourselves and be better than we were yesterday.

I noticed on your Facebook page that you wrote a memorial to Jack Klugman on his recent passing. You said, “A long time ago this man hired a baby writer with no experience to be the head writer of an Emmy-caliber hit television series.” How did that happen?

I was maybe 22 or 23 years old. I had come out to Los Angeles to try to be a TV writer only a year or a year and a half earlier. I had written a few scripts for the old ABC-Universal cop series “Baretta,” and “Baretta” was canceled. The people who had worked at “Baretta” were talking with Mr. Klugman one day, and Jack was going on about how he needed writers [for his crime series, “Quincy, M.E.”]. My name came up and Klugman calls me in out of the blue to meet him. At the time I was just terrified. And we spoke for about an hour, and he asked me questions — he was having a script problem — and he hired me on the spot.

Because you gave him an answer to the problem that impressed him?

There was a script that Jack wanted rewritten. I believe it was a story about affirmative action, and a young African American physician was accused of making mistakes and not being competent. And Jack didn’t like what was done with the script. Clearly, it was sensitive subject matter, and it needed to be handled correctly and honestly. And he said, “You’re just some kid. Why do you think you can put yourself in this physician’s shoes and write knowingly about it?” And I looked at him and I said, “Jack, a year ago, I was swatting mosquitoes on the bayou and I’m sitting in a room with Jack Klugman. No one thinks I can do this job either.”

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