Johnny's Reviews > The First Rule

The First Rule by Robert Crais
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's review
Mar 22, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: mystery
Read in March, 2011

I wonder if Michael Connelly wasn’t inspired to juxtapose his Lincoln Lawyer , Mickey Haller, and troubled but effective detective, Harry Bosch, as a result of watching Crais interweave the talents and abilities of Joe Pike and Elvis Cole. If opposites indeed attract, as it seems in most of life, these two work together as a perfect tandem in an entirely different chemistry than the structure created by Haller and Bosch working together. The methodologies are completely different. Pike is the former mercenary, as hands-on as a Dashiell Hammet or Raymond Chandler protagonist, who is willing to break the law (if necessary) in order to ensure justice is served. Cole is the modern Sherlock Holmes, not in terms of phenomenal observation coupled with a willingness to indulge in the latest forensic approaches, but in that methodical and technological approach that grinds toward a solution through reason over pure force. Pike is the instrument of force; Cole is the velvet glove of sophistication that surrounds him. Both are fiercely loyal to each other and both are incredibly proficient at what they seek to do. [For the counter-comparison with Haller and Bosch, see my review of The Reversal.]

For me, having a major author in a given genre have protagonists appear jointly in an adventure or “guest star” in another’s case is merely a delightful bit of serendipity that makes the author’s fictional world seem richer and more familiar. I know that others have the feeling that this makes said fictional world seem more capricious and contrived. Frankly, I always thought that part of the brilliance of the early Marvel Universe was that Stan Lee established a vague timeline such that when The Human Torch appeared in a Marvel Two-in-One with The Mighty Thor, there would be some indication as to what crisis had been solved by the Fantastic Four in their previous offering and some hint of how that fit into the timeline with the villain being fought by the Asgardian hero to whom everything looked like a nail. The very fact that one title referenced another allowed me to fill in the gaps with my very human narrative tendency.
But enough about crossovers, even when the protagonists began as formal partners (as did Cole and Pike)! The First Rule begins with a recollection of other former partnerships for Joe Pike. The worst part of it is that these are partners, former mercenaries, who rarely (if ever) allowed themselves contact with each other for fear of endangering the lives of the others. The mercenary brotherhood has something of the same credo as that of the Eastern European criminal brotherhoods from which this novel derives its title, The First Rule. That rule, in fact, is that a criminal can’t marry and have a family, EVER, because that family offers a weakness which not only could bring that criminal down but a violation of the code wherein his “brothers” would bring the criminal down.

I enjoyed The First Rule because Pike begins on the defensive. One of his mercenary brothers is dead, but the merc has been out of “the life” for a long time. It had looked like the merc had made it. Now, because of his background with Pike, it is assumed that the deceased was trafficking in an illegal area that Pike didn’t know about. Pike finds himself under surveillance, double-crossed, and manipulated in the course of running down his clues. There are several cliff-hangers at the end of chapters that I simply wasn’t expecting and they were resolved more creatively than I would have expected.

I loved the emotional impact of this book, the depth of Pike’s feelings in a way that I don’t think Crais has ever revealed before. I liked the sense of “waste” that was expressed when violent solutions outside the law, even when providing poetic justice, would occur. I was saddened by the realization that my first suspect proved to be the culprit even after Crais had humanized the perpetrator to a significant degree. This is a powerful novel where Pike’s street- and jungle-smarts are every bit as vital as Cole’s techno- and procedural-smarts. For me, it really works, but I know a lot of people who would think it was entirely too convenient. Still, the book begins with a dedication to Harlan Ellison—a brilliant innovator who has been accused of taking the easy route with some stories but rarely has—and I think it has the kind of grittiness, pace, and punch to the stomach for which Harlan would be proud.
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