Robert Crais is one of the best (and best-selling) exponents of the detective novel/thriller blend. He achieves this goal by use of two characters: LA private investigator Elvis Cole, and his friend Joe Pike. Cole is a wisecracking, warm-hearted and intelligent man, whose inner sadness is masked by his Hawaiian shirts, Pinocchio clock on the wall of his office, and his self-mocking appellation of “The World’s Greatest Detective”. Pike, on the other hand, is a strong, silent type, ex-special forces and just the kind of guy you need on hand to get you out of trouble. After several novels in which Cole was the main character, solving cases in Chandler-esque style with Joe as his loyal sidekick, Pike has branched out to become the main character in a couple of novels of his own.
In Taken, Crais has mixed his formula again, both stylistically and in terms of plot. Stylistically, the book is told not only from several perspectives, but in chronologically haphazard segments that add to the tension. Jim and Krista, who tell part of the story, are two young lovers who stumble into a horrific nightmare while out in the desert one night, and seemingly disappear. Cole, another narrator, is hired by Krista’s desperate mother to find her daughter. Pike, and his even more extreme companion Jon Stone, narrate other sections. Because of the chapter headings, the reader knows pretty early on that Cole is going to be “taken”, so suspense is built up by the reader’s ignorance about who, why and how.
The plot concerns people-trafficking, which nowadays is a crime-fiction staple. Here, however, the author puts a novel yet nasty riff on the theme: foreign nationals pay LA contacts (often via relatives) to be smuggled into the USA, whether from Mexico, Korea, or various Arab countries. Yet the rival gangs of LA prey on each other, re-kidnapping these refugees at their desert rendezvous points and demanding ransom from their families in relatively small but regular amounts. When the families run out of money and the ransom can no longer be paid, the refugee “disappears”.
Cole does not take long to find out what has happened to Krista and Jim: these initial sections of the novel sparkle as Cole builds up the picture using tried and tested methods of detective fiction (perhaps leaning a little too much on friendly police officers to run database searches for him). Krista, in particular, is no slouch, managing to stay alive by fooling her captors. Half-way through, the gear shifts, and the book becomes a thriller as Pike and Stone, having been neatly outwitted, engage in a desperate search to find the kidnapped victims before it is too late.
Taken is an addictive read: not a book to put down once opened, but not one that will take long to finish. It is probably best enjoyed if you’ve read some of the previous 12 novels about Cole and Pike, not least because of the in-jokes and some of the recurring characters who make brief appearances here.