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By Robert Crais

Doubleday, 2000 (HC), $24.95; July 2001 Ballantine (paperback)
ISBN 0-385-49584-6 (HC)

Reviewed by Anthony V. Rainone

Robert Crais prefaces his novel DEMOLITION ANGEL with a legal-medical definition that reads, “To be disrupted: when the human body is blown apart; as by the pressure force of a bomb.” Yet, it would be simplistic to think this book a technical thriller only. This taut, well-constructed novel is also about ruptured emotional lives, the fragmented leftovers after the immediate physical devastation.

Carol Starkey is the heroine of the book and a former bomb technician. She now works for the LAPD CCS, or Criminal Conspiracy Section, as a grade two detective. Three years earlier, an explosive device went off and left her medically dead for several minutes. She recovers, but is emotionally handicapped as well as physically scarred, and is struggling to patch her life back together. Alcohol and Tagamet are her mainstay. Crais demonstrated in LA Requiem that he can write three-dimensional female characters, and he does so again in Demolition Angel. Starkey is a wonderful creation. Like Samantha Dolan before her, Starkey is a hard smoker, a drinker and bluntly says what’s on her mind. She is the driving force of this novel, her passion and courage the yin to the yang of a bomb’s released energy. Crais gets inside her mind and reveals an emotionality and way of being that is truly feminine, not merely male attributes in female form. Crais cares about this woman and hence, the reader cares a great deal too.

Unfortunately, Special Agent Jack Pell, who occupies a major position in the novel, is a watercolor to the elaborate oil painting that is Carol Starkey. We are given just enough concerning the edgy Pell, which serves the plot, but makes the reader hunger for more. Pell is suffering in ways similar to Starkey and has his own demons to exorcise. An opening up of the character would have been fascinating. None the less, Pell’s cat and mouse games with Mr. Red, and his scheming behind Starkey’s back leave the reader on the edge. Likewise, Crais knows language, mannerisms and people so well that he is able to give the sparsest minor characters immediate recognition.

More so, he has done his research in spades and has captured the particular psyche of the types of individuals who are driven to blow things or people up. Dallas Tennant is eerily depicted as a man addicted to explosives and has the missing fingers to prove it. The notorious Mr. Red is a meticulous egomaniac whose bombs are a personal reflection of a tightly wound psychosis. He is an ambitious man, but his ambitions run anti-social and the evil inside Mr. Red burns as hot as the sun. Crais’ exploration of the inner sanctum of the world of homemade munitions makes for fascinating reading.

With many of the Elvis Cole books, one is hard-pressed to stop reading, because Crais has his chops down. He writes taut and fast-paced, with plot twists that constantly throw left hooks. There is no let-up with Demolition Angel. Scenes shift from contemporary LA, which Crais knows so well, to Florida and Louisiana, and back to California. The landscapes are often desolate, remote or solitary. Like the timer on a bomb clicking down, the reader races towards the denouement. The conclusion is vintage Crais. The plot lines are pulled together, a few more jabs are thrown, and there is a face-off of Richter-scale proportions.

Demolition Angel is Robert Crais’ first stand-alone novel, meaning it is not a serial like his Elvis Cole books. Film rights have been bought by Laurence Mark and Columbia/TriStar and Crais has completed writing the script. The release date is not yet known. Demolition Angel was also nominated for a 2001 Dilys Award, which is given by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association. While the award went to Val McDermid, there is no way this book is anything but a winner.

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