1980s Detective Fiction is Totally Rad

Recently, I finished reading The Monkey’s Raincoat, a hardboiled novel written by Robert Crais and published in 1987. (That year, we were treated to such musical hits as Wang Chung’s Everybody Have Fun Tonight, Bangles’ Walk Like An Egyptian, and Tiffany’s I Think We’re Alone Now. Good stuff to bop to. But I digress.)

Why is the monkey wearing a raincoat, you ask? I don’t know — it’s not covered in the book. What IS covered is the story of Ellen Lang, a downtrodden woman whose husband and son have gone missing. Private eye Elvis Cole is hired to locate them. But what the “wisecracking Vietnam veteran” finds is a big ol’ pile of Hollywood sleaze. A cocktail of drugs and murder. Bad guys. You get the picture.

The Louisiana-born Crais was a TV writer before turning to novels, and you can hear this in the dialogue — it has that everyday grittiness of ordinary speech. The tropes of detective fiction* are front and center — damsel in distress, tough-guy action, spare prose, copious boozing, extreme firepower — but Crais doesn’t beat you over the head with it. Dare I say, enjoying this 80s-era novel in 2019 is easy and almost comforting, but only if you’re in the mood for such nostalgia. (Side note: why does Elvis Cole love Disney characters so much?)

As a writer of crime fiction, I read quite a bit in the genre. Reading the ones that came before you is essential to strengthening your own writing, if only to see how it’s been done, and then subvert those expectations like a MF. At 201 pages, The Monkey’s Raincoat is a quick and entertaining intro to a quirky private eye who has endured through the decades. Further reading: it will be interesting to see how this character has or hasn’t evolved.

*Should we be calling this dick fic?