Crime writer Robert Crais wakes in darkness to explore LA’s trails. We joined him. – Orange County Register

It’s pitch dark in the hills above Brentwood as Robert Crais ducks beneath a low-hanging branch and onto the West Mandeville Canyon Trail early one Sunday in October.

Crais, the best-selling author of the Elvis Cole and Joe Pike crime novels, lights the way with a flashlight, even though he comes here often enough that the hardpacked path is likely as familiar as any sidewalk near his home in West Hollywood.

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It’s 6 a.m. and sunrise is 38 minutes and several hundred feet of elevation away up the steep ridgeline trail. This is a late start for Crais, who kindly agreed to bump back his usual 4;30 a.m. start time to accommodate the reporter and photographer who’ve tagged along today.

The sociable private investigator Elvis Cole and his stoic partner Joe Pike, who returned Nov. 1 in “Racing The Light,” the 19th book in the series, inhabit a Los Angeles that feels real to the reader even when Crais blurs locations to make a story work.

Out here in the early morning darkness in Mandeville Canyon, or Kenter Canyon, the Sepulveda Pass and Runyon Canyon to the east, Crais often finds a calm in which to think about his work in progress and the landscapes where they take place.

“It’s the solitude of it, the quiet,” he says of the early morning hikes he takes five or six days a week. “It’s easier to drive when everyone else is asleep, so I have the freedom to move to these far locations from home with relative ease.

“But really, the true reason is because no one else is up here, just like now,” Crais says.

The weather forecast had warned of fog and a chance of rain this morning, but in the distance only a scattering of low-hanging clouds move over the twinkling lights of Santa Monica to the east, Century City in the foreground, and downtown Los Angeles in the distance.

“You know, normally I’m finishing the hike about this time,” Crais says. “So you’d never see anyone. I’m up here, I’m all alone. So for me, I’m free to think whatever I want. I’m free to let my mind drift.

“Invariably, I’m thinking about the characters or the books, the scenes that I’m writing,” he says. “But also Los Angeles, because it’s just right there. There it is.”

Elvis Cole’s LA

When Crais moved to Los Angeles in 1976, he was a runner until chronic Achilles tendonitis ended that. He took up hiking the canyons and trails of the Santa Monica Mountains 25 years ago and hasn’t stopped.

“It’s become a gift,” he says of the light sleeping habits that get him up and out of the house while most of the city still sleeps. “I get to get to come to places like this and spend time. Also, I think I’m at my most creative early in the morning.

“I’ve solved a lot of problems at this time of day in places just like this,” Crais says. “In a way, I’m not seeing the real Los Angeles when I look out there. I see Elvis Cole’s Los Angeles, which is a fictionalized version, but it’s the version that I write about.”

He pauses to point out the coastline of the Santa Monica Bay to the east, only now emerging from the darkness, and then explains how the real streets and neighborhoods bend ever-so-slightly to meet fiction’s needs.

“Elvis, of course, lives in Laurel Canyon,” Crais says. “In the very first book, he’s living near the top of Laurel Canyon. A lot of people think he lives on Woodrow Wilson Drive. He does not. He lives on a small street off Woodrow Wilson Drive.

“Hence, Elvis Cole’s Los Angeles. It’s an overlay of the actual, real Los Angeles.”

Yet sometimes the fact and fiction of the city merge into one. Seven years ago in “The Promise,” Crais used his years of hiking Kenter Canyon to help Elvis give the slip to his police tail.

“I had a situation where Elvis is being followed by multiple undercover officers,” Crais says. “It was very, very difficult for him, impossible for him to escape, because they were running so many cars on him.

“So he knew because I knew – because I had hiked it – that you can go in the south end of Kenter Canyon and the north comes out in a subdivision,” he says.

“You see that little hump of a hill?” Crais says, pointing to the ridgeline to the east and a tree now silhouetted by the golden glow of the nascent sunrise. “And there’s a water tank? And down there, those two lights, probably on a house?

“That’s the MountainGate subdivision,” he says. “Joe Pike delivers a car for him to use there because Elvis has called him and said, ‘Hey, man, this is what’s gonna happen.’

“So Elvis runs that way, he gets into the car and he’s able to escape. Only because I’ve hiked that 150 times.”

The new case

In “Racing The Light,” Crais sets Elvis and Joe on the hunt for a missing man, a 20-something podcaster named Josh Schumacher, who stumbles onto information about a Los Angeles city councilman involved in corrupt business dealings and latches onto the story even as it becomes increasingly dangerous.

“We’ve had three city council members indicted in the past two, two-and-a-half years, so it was on my mind that this was happening,” Crais says of the initial inspiration for the book. The crusading podcaster character Josh came to him amid the pandemic-fueled surge in conspiracy theories, he says.

“Suddenly the world was upside down,” he says of how the pandemic acted upon his imagination. “We were all living in this weird dystopian science-fiction film. We were getting reports on the news every day that were contradictory. You know, ‘Where’s this virus come from? Is it gonna kill us? Can we cure it?’ On and on.

“What dawned on me was that in these chaotic, crazy times, when nothing was as it seemed, the value of someone who wanted to reveal the truth, uncover the truth, is important to me personally,” Crais says. “And that became Josh Schumacher.

“Here’s this young guy, who you might say is so easily dismissed as this fringe whacko,” he says. “He has a podcast where he deals with things like UFOs and alien clones and all sorts of just outrageous, outlandish things.

“But he comes upon something that’s very real and very true, and it becomes his obsession. And his drive to uncover the full truth is what I think makes him heroic.”

As in all of his books, the attributes of the characters in “Racing The Light” help suggest the settings, Crais says.

“It’s what feels right for the characters,” he says. “Josh being young, I’m sure he fancies himself as a hipper guy than the world would describe him as. So I figured it would be appropriate that he’s going to live in an apartment over by the Silver Lake-Los Feliz border.

“There are a lot of people around Josh’s age, a lot of cool little shops there, like the coffee shop where he meets Skyler at the beginning,” Crais says. “That, too, is a fictionalized version.”

A former porn actress turned manager is based in Canoga Park, given the San Fernando Valley’s longtime history as a center of the adult film industry, he says. Josh’s eccentric mother, who hires Elvis, lives in Toluca Lake in “a very nice Lucy and Desi home there that’s sort of purposefully time-locked in another era,” he says.

“All of these things are things that I think about a lot because I want the whole thing selling this character,” Crais says. “When I’m writing the books I want the setting to speak to and resonate with the nature of the characters that I’m writing, that the reader is reading.

“And just as important as what the reader feels is what I feel when I’m writing it. It has to feel right to me; otherwise, I don’t know that I could successfully write the thing.”

‘Space to think’

The sun has risen now over the eastern horizon, bathing Mandeville Canyon in a warm glow beneath a crisp blue sky. We’ve been sitting on the trail, exchanging hellos with the occasional hiker or dogwalker passing by. Now we rise to return to the trailhead.

“Those clouds did not show up,” Crais says. “They’re just breaking up. That’s good.”

If we headed the opposite way, deeper into the canyon, we’d eventually reach a Cold War-era Nike missile control site, where Elvis Cole and Joe Pike rendezvoused in 1999’s “L.A. Requiem.” It’s a spot Crais visits maybe once a month when he takes a longer, eight-mile hike that loops from Kenter Canyon to the unpaved part of Mulholland Drive, and then back down through Mandeville Canyon.

The hikes serve to open his mind, allowing thoughts about his work and impressions of the place he’s traveling through to flow back and forth, he says.

“Honestly, I think they’re of a piece,” Crais says. “I come up here and sometimes I’ll just be in a moment where I’m enjoying the world. But when I’m thinking and working in my head on the book or the characters, I don’t find those thoughts intrusive up here.

“It’s like this place is giving me the space to think about it,” he says. “I can still fully appreciate the owls or the coyotes or whatever I happen to encounter up here.

“And even those things find their way into the book,” Crais says. “Where Elvis Cole lives, he hears owls. He sees red-tail hawks floating about his canyon. He sees coyotes going through garbage cans.

“That’s all the stuff of Los Angeles. And it’s here, too.” Crime writer Robert Crais wakes in darkness to explore LA’s trails. We joined him. – Orange County Register

Adam Bradshaw

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