Suspect (a book review)

One guess what the dog is looking at. Ha ha! You were wrong!

“I won’t leave you.”

Therein lies the emotional thread running through the Robert Crais novel, Suspect, a story about an LAPD officer trying to recover from the traumatic loss of his partner and finding an unexpected source of healing in his new position in the department’s K-9 unit.

I recently railed on thrillers that have enjoyed long runs as ongoing series (fairly and, perhaps, somewhat unfairly). What I like about Robert Crais is how he has managed to keep his writing from getting stale by occasionally stepping away from his main series characters, Elvis Cole and Joe Pike, and giving readers something new to chew on. He hasn’t stepped away from the Los Angeles crime scenes, but he has challenged his readers and, I’m assuming himself, with new and interesting characters. If you haven’t read his other step-outs, Demolition Angel, Hostage, and The Two-Minute Rule, and you like his writing, you should check them out.

His latest departure is Suspect.

Suspect takes a risk by venturing into a man-and-his-dog / buddy-cop story. A story like that can be schmaltzy, overwrought, or feel like it was sponsored by PETA (maybe the book should just say, “Written by the internet” on a meme-infused cover). But Suspect takes an honest look at both a man and a dog suffering from PTSD and desperately trying to recover.

Officer Scott James watched his partner die in front of him. He tried to save her, even as he was near-fatally wounded. After months of recover, he tries to stay on the job so he can help find the killers, who have eluded justice. His superior’s throw him a bone (sorry for the pun) by letting him sign up for the K-9 Platoon. In Afghanistan, Maggie, a military-trained German shepherd, sees her handler killed in a bombing and takes bullets herself. The K-9 Platoon is hoping to retrain her for local duty.

It’s easy to anticipate where this story will go, that the man and the dog will be put together and blah blah blah. And some of those things do happen. But the author focuses on the psychological aspect of coming to grips with, and overcoming, serious trauma. To do this, he offers the perspective of both Scott and Maggie.

One of the reasons I waited to read this book was because I thought a dog’s point of view would just be a gimmick. However, Maggie’s point of view used sparingly, and it doesn’t tread too far into the human thoughts and traits we like to project onto our pets. It feels like it could be real, if a dog could relate their story in English.

Of course, there’s a mystery to solve and the author does not hold back on the readers in that department. But he waits until the last moment, opting to build his main characters layer by layer until everything comes together at once, making the aftermath all the more powerful. There’s still plenty of suspense, shadowy figures to bring into the light, and an action-climax, but it’s all put into perspective by the carefully built relationships between the characters.

Thrillers by their nature don’t have the character depth you might get from straight dramas. They are not plays, with everyone sitting around the dining room table, digging into their sordid family past. But they can have interesting character arcs and emotional threads all the same.

I think, in this one, Robert Crais does it right.

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