First published in 1987, this is the novel that introduced Los Angeles P.I. Elvis Cole and his taciturn sidekick, Joe Pike. As seems to be the case in eighty-five percent of P.I. novels, Cole is whiling away a quiet afternoon in his office when a woman appears who is in desperate need of his help. In this case, though, the woman, Ellen Lang, isn't exactly convinced that she needs Cole's help, but her friend, Janet Simon, is determined that Ellen does need help and that Cole may be the man to provide it.
Lang's husband, Mort, is a B-list Hollywood agent who's fallen on hard times. Mort and the Langs' young son, Perry, have disappeared. Simon believes that Ellen should hire Cole to find them, but Mort has always made all of the family's decisions. Ellen, who is thirty-nine years old, doesn't even know how to write a check and has no idea what to do about her husband's disappearance. Perhaps he had a good reason for leaving with the boy and she should just go home and wait for him to show up again. Absent Mort, her friend Janet is doing all the thinking for her though, and Lang ultimately agrees to hire Elvis to track down her husband and son.
Before long, Ellen's house is ransacked by people obviously looking for something they believe to have been in the house. Mort Lang will turn up murdered, and the son, Perry, will not turn up at all. Cole's job now is to find the missing boy and rescue Ellen Lang from the dangers and other trials and tribulations that have descended upon her. It will lead Elvis on a journey through the seamier side of Hollywood and ultimately to an explosive climax involving a gang of drug dealers and some very bad actors.
This is a book that owes a lot to the P.I. novels that went before it, particularly to Robert B. Parker's Spenser series. Like Spenser, Cole constantly cracks wise, even when it would be a lot smarter not to, and, like Parker, Crais has a tendency to overdue this at times, leading the reader to think that neither Crais nor his protagonist are nearly as funny as they think they are. Like Spenser, Cole has a strong and silent sidekick who seems to have abilities greater than those of most mortal men. There's also a touch of John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee here in that over the course of the book Cole will have to restore a very damaged woman to psychological good health. Inevitably, of course, Cole will also be at odds with the cops through the entire story but will ultimately have to follow his own course, irrespective of the consequences.
For all of that, though, once the plot gets rolling, the book takes on a life of its own and becomes a pretty compulsive page-turner, leading to a violent and very well-choreographed climax. Elvis Cole has always been a little too cute and full of himself for my taste, and I found it hard to imagine that any adult woman could be so naive and incapable of thinking for herself as the Ellen Lang we meet as the book opens. Still, I found The Monkey's Raincoat to be a pretty good read and a nice introduction to a series I've long enjoyed.