Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Elvis & Joe in Audiobook: The First Rule

With 2010's release of the 13th book (a lucky number for me) in the Elvis Cole and Joe Pike novel series by Robert Crais, this is the my final review in the arc that examines each novel and the audiobook versions that came out of them. All of this traces back to when television writer/producer Crais turned away from Hollywood more than 20 years ago to do what he always wanted, be a novelist. He originated a quirky but distinctive private detective with the unlikely name of Elvis Cole, and his memorable laconic partner, Joe Pike. That first book's success, The Monkey's Raincoat, brought the P.I. genre something extraordinary byway of the author's writing style and remarkable characterizations. The humor that epitomizes Robert Crais, along with the rich relationships and poignancy of his stories, brought the soon-to-be popular series to the fore of the mystery crime class. While the series works on its third decade with publishers and admirers, Elvis and Joe still continue to earn new fans with each new book release.

The First Rule

Robert Crais' thirteenth novel, The First Rule (print published in January 2010 for the U.S. market and pictured above - in sharp contrast of U.K. release, this cover art reaches back to previously established L.A. cityscape views of earlier books) returns Joe Pike to the forefront with the second book with this fan favorite in the lead. I could attempt my own synopsis of this novel, but I'll highlight the one done by Corey Wilde last November, instead:
"When Frank Meyers, ex-mercenary turned husband-father-businessman-upstanding citizen, is murdered along with his wife and children in a home invasion, Joe Pike takes strong exception. The dead man had been one of Pike's men during his professional soldier days. And Meyer wasn't just another soldier; he was the one man all the other soldiers thought had a real chance at a normal life. And Frank was succeeding - or was he? Pike will do whatever he must to find and bring down the killers, and learn the truth about his friend."
Whereas the author in the previous Joe Pike novel (The Watchman) had the taciturn one immediately trading gunshots this side of the prologue, here our protagonist is confronted with the brutal loss of a friend from his past. Essentially, what Robert Crais sets up from the start is a story of friendships and family, with L.A.'s Serbian mob serving as the counterpoint to Joe Pike. The thieves code, referred to by the novel's title, follows the Russian mobster's principle that nothing is more important than the gang they belong to (and family and children do not matter). Here, they'll be pitted against the one person where friendship means just about everything (including the guiding morality he's crafted). Because of this, Pike is placed again in a role that is preferred by his base of fans - that of the lethal hunter. Still, as he's done many times before, Crais manages to surprise readers with the depth of his two lead characters in this chain of novels. As Corey wrote,
"... 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."
As has been his inclination in the series, the author brings back and expands on a character seen in previous books (namely The Last Detective and The Watchman), that of Jon Stone. The former-mercenary and current Professional Military Contractor broker brings an added level of passion to these proceedings. Though the reader can spot elements of both Joe and Elvis in his personality, he is an altogether unique persona (and one you want to read more of). As fans have come to expect, he's a marvelous addition to the carefully built character universe by this novelist. However, everything still orbits around Elvis and Joe. It's stated best by Robert Crais himself:
"... I could no more write a Joe Pike novel without Elvis than I could write an Elvis Cole novel without Joe. These guys are more than partners. They are friends. They are two underdogs who have turned themselves into heroes."

Brilliance Audio, no surprise, used the same artwork as that of the U.S. hardcover. What was surprising, however, was their answer to the retirement of their most experienced U.S. audiobook narrator of the series, James Daniels (who now practices law). This time, the publisher sought out the author to read both the audio unabridged and abridged versions for the new release. As I covered previously, Crais has had experience in doing the abridged audiobooks for The Forgotten Man and his standalone novel Hostage, for this publisher. As the author told book tour audiences this year, Brilliance asked him if he'd take over reader duties for this novel. In the past, such a job would have taken him away from his L.A. home/writing routine and required him to travel to the publisher's home base in Michigan. Nevertheless, they wanted him enough for this novel's audio form they brought out a studio crew to Los Angeles for this stint. All in all, he spent 6 days recording both versions. For this novel, author Robert Crais performed his first unabridged reading (8:12 run-time), along with its abridged (4:36) double-duty.

Normally, given my audiobook experience I'm very much against authors reading their own books, with the exception of those reading their non-fiction bio work (Jake Adelstein narrating his Tokyo Vice book being an excellent example of this). Many authors tend to be out of their depth, and lack the vocal, linguistic, and/or acting skills to pull it off (cough... Mark Bowden... cough). So, I was apprehensive when BA announced my favorite author as the The First Rule's narrator prior to its release. I have to admit, though, I was pleasantly surprised when I began reviewing the author's earlier abridged audio work during this series. Plus, his unabridged TFR reading was also his best work in the entire line (IMO). Although, I noted Brilliance sound engineers did not enhance the recording with their hallmark phone modulation touches as they've done with other works (this was likely due to working away from their home studio). Crais is at his best voicing and bringing to life Joe, Elvis, and Jon Stone in the audiobook, but weaker where I'd expect (foreign accents and women character vocalizations). Still, his reading easily involved the listener, and that's all that really matters for audio and series fans. His voice work took nothing away from the story, and added wonderfully to it at key moments. The unabridged sample passage is below (the download link is here):

I really wanted to contrast the passage on the shorter version, but that same portion of the conversation doesn't exist on this abridgement. Take that as you will. Given the recent track record, the UK BBC version (with their narrator William Roberts) probably isn't expected till sometime next year (I will re-visit this when it is released).

Next up: recap & odd 'n ends

The Series:
The Monkey's Raincoat
Stalking the Angel
Lullaby Town
Free Fall
Voodoo River
Sunset Express
Indigo Slam
L.A. Requiem
The Last Detective
The Forgotten Man
The Watchman
Chasing Darkness
The First Rule

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  1. You totally echoed my sentiments. Crais is by far the best Joe Pike voice of everyone. No one came close to what I imagined in my mind until RC. And I imagined Pike long before I ever heard Crais' voice, so that's not what motivated my mind's sound. I also loved hearing him read Elvis. Obviously, since one of my biggest issues with readers are the ones who don't get the sarcasm, RC brings it out in full force. I love it.

    The Eastern European accents, especially the female Eastern European accents, left something to be desired, but that's o.k.

    The one thing I did notice, though, was that there seemed to be times he was maybe getting tired and wasn't totally consistent in Joe's voice. He's not transition from the voice he used for the narrator. And those are quite similar, so it's not a real obvious inconsistency, but it's there nonetheless.

    Overall, I just loved hearing his sound for Joe and Elvis. And you're right, Jon Stone was fab, too!

    Love it, love it, love it!!

  2. RC's voice and tenor seemed tailor-made for Joe, and the personalities of Elvis and Jon were a wonderful touch in his performance. Your point about him getting tired and it being seen in his vocal transitions is spot on, Jen. I remember RC told me (at The Mystery Bookstore stop) that after six days of voice work, he and his throat were pretty damn tired. Still, I expected not to like it, but he definitely had me fully involved with the story. For a non-pro narrator in the audiobook field, that's saying something! Thanks very much for comment, Jen.

  3. I love the Jon Stone character, even more than John Chen and Carol Starkey. There's so much there Crais can work with, should he ever decide to expand this character's role.

    I have to agree with you on Crais as a reader. While I could wish for better definition of women's voices and an improvement on the accents, he still captures the essence of his characters, even the wildly volatile Rina. And when he is in Joe Pike mode, he's peerless. I like the way he paces his reading, too.

  4. Yes, the Stone character is quite something and has a lot of potential. I want to see/hear more of him. RC did capture the essence of his characters with his reading for listeners. That can't be minimized since professionals (as we know with this series) can fail to do that. Thanks, Naomi.

  5. RC did the same reading at the book signing as your sound clip.  I thought then what a fabulous job he did of voicing Pike and Jon Stone!  As I've not listened to the audiobooks, I can't comment on any of his other voicework of the Serbs and women; but I'd love to hear his Elvis voice.  From past abridged audios, I recall what Jen was saying about some not portraying Elvis' sarcasm well. 

    It occurred to me when you mentioned James Daniels that I bet all this voice work could be a real asset to him when presenting a case in front of judge and/or jury.

    Loved your quote of Corey: <span>"... 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."</span>

    Oh you betcha!  Corey nailed it.

    Thanks so much for this fabulous series, lp13!

  6. Yep, it's a great scene he wrote and I couldn't help including it here. It also gave a great example of his Joe and Jon Stone vocalizations by RC. I agree, as well, that Daniels voice work is going to be a big asset in his practice of law. Didn't Corey do a great job on his book review? I had to cite it. Thank you so much for your kind words and comment, Christine.