Putnam $26.95, 352 pages
Most crime novel fans have a shortlist of authors they will buy on name recognition alone. If Robert Crais isn't on that list, he should be. His best-selling Elvis Cole/Joe Pike series gets better with every new book, and his latest, "Taken," is no exception.
Cole, the easygoing, wisecracking detective, was always the lead character in the series that began with "The Monkey's Raincoat" in 1987. His detective agency partner Pike played the tough, silent, damaged-soul sidekick. Readers learned about Pike's background and personality in "L.A. Requiem" in 1999, which quickly moved onto the best-seller lists, and in the 11th book in 2007, Pike got the starring role in "The Watchman." That was no easy writing task for Crais, since Pike's vocabulary consists mostly of "Mm" and a few threatening words growled at the criminals he hunts down. But while Pike is a man of few words and prone to coloring outside the lines, he also has an unwavering sense of justice and an unquestioned loyalty to Cole.
Which is exactly what Cole needs in "Taken," a story of kidnapping, ransom, murder, a variety of gangs and cartels that illegally smuggle people into the U.S. to exploit them for cheap labor and the even more sinister bajadores, who dare to rip off the gangsters.
In "Taken," Crais cleverly builds on Pike's popularity without diminishing Cole's. For the first time, Cole and Pike share the lead role, with the chapters switching between Cole in first person, and Pike in third person, along with two young kidnapped characters, Jack and Krista, and the mercenary Jon Stone, whom we've met in previous books and who partners with Pike in "Taken" when Cole ends up missing.
The changing perspectives enhance the rapid pace. But the page-turner can be a bit too breakneck, as if Crais were trying to wrap up everything in an hourlong TV crime show, as he once did as a writer for "Miami Vice" and "Hill Street Blues." More variety in pacing and more time with the great characters Crais has created are always welcome, such as the scene where, after things have gone from bad to worse to horrible, Pike drives the missing Cole's filthy old Corvette to Cole's house.
"Cole was fastidiously clean," Crais writes. "But his car was a mess. Pike did not understand it, though he often wondered if it revealed some truth Pike was unable to understand."
Then Pike carefully washes and dries the Corvette so that "when Cole came back, his car was good to go" -- Pike's way of saying he wouldn't give up searching for Cole and would do all he could to ensure that Cole came back alive.
While the lack of significant character development for Cole and Pike is disappointing, "Taken" is an engaging change of pace for the 15-book series and ranks among its high points.