Part 2: Pike’s Way
The sunglasses, twenty-four/seven. The empty, humorless expression. The sleeveless sweatshirt. The arrow tattoos that move him forward. The silence.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Joe Pike.
I first saw Joe Pike at the Florida Drive-in Theater in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Would have been the late ’60s, one of those triple-bill nights southern drive-ins are famous for. Me, I would have been a kid, carted to the drive-in by my mom to get me out of the house, or maybe alone, having snuck across the marshy fields and cane reeds on foot to slip between the rows of cars. I remembered him years later when I was creating the characters and story that would become The Monkey’s Raincoat. Gunfighter eyes peered out of a face burned dark by the sun, so cold they went beyond cold into the empty void of deep space. The thin, humorless lips. Your worst nightmare if he paints you with his rattlesnake gaze. Clint Eastwood. A Fistful of Dollars. For a Few Dollars More. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. A walking can of whup ass. I could have left it there, but I never leave well enough alone.
Mr. Eastwood, the God Priest of manliness back in the day, was not the flash-image inspiration for Joe Pike-he was what I imagined when I first imagined Elvis Cole. In those early days of thinking about Elvis, I envisioned Cole as the stereotypical loner, and those first notions were as clich'ed as they come. Cole listened to moody jazz. He had an apartment in Hollywood with a window looking out at a neon sign. He smoked, liked cheap bourbon in a shot glass, and was big on smoking and sipping the bourbon as he watched the neon sign blink. Yawn. When I came to my senses a few days later, I dropped all that and created the character you know as Elvis Cole.
Even as I developed Cole (and the themes worth spending a year of my life writing about), I knew I wanted Cole to have a friend. Butch and Sundance. Batman and Robin. Lucky Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. Thelma and Louise. Spenser and Hawk. Spade and Archer (even though Archer was dead). Before I wrote The Monkey’s Raincoat, I wrote a lot of television, and watched even more. Cagney & Lacey. Miami Vice with Crockett and Tubbs. These friendships had always inspired me (both as a reader and a writer). Cole was not going to be part of a formal organization like the police-I identified more closely with an outsider who did not have the power and authority that come with the badge-but I also had no interest in writing about a character who was so disaffected that he was empty of friends. Elvis Cole needed a friend. Note that I am using the word friend, not partner. The human stuff of friendship was-and is-important in all of this.
That image of the man with no name appeared, but that’s where it ended. The image reappeared but quickly changed. The narrowed eyes and sharp-cut jaw evolved within Elvis Cole’s house in the Hollywood hills and became something much more compelling. I was once aboard a ship in the South Pacific where the water was seventeen thousand feet deep. Water that deep grows dark as it swallows the light. It is bottomless. When you see a shadow move in that darkness, the hair will stand up on the back of your neck. You know all the way down in your DNA that something dangerous swims in those waters. I was drawn to it. Out there at sea, I leaned across the rail again and again, trying to see into the depths. I still do, only now the water is Pike.
For a piece like this, I find it easier to describe Elvis Cole than Joe Pike. Armchair psychologists will no doubt pipe up with the certain opinions that this is because I identify more with Cole or that he is my alter ego (he isn’t), but I think it is less a factor of identification than understanding. Pike is an iceberg, and I am trying to understand the parts of him beneath the water. Careless swimmers have disturbed the silt. The waters are murky, the shadows indistinct and shifting, the darkness increases as the water deepens, and Pike is a very deep presence.
Listen. I wanted the fun and kickass good time of this enigmatic character-the twitch is there for you to enjoy-but Pike and Cole were always more. My fiction is about underdogs. And because I want there to be justice in this world, underdogs must have heroes… or they must become heroes. In many ways, the more I thought about Elvis, and who he was, and how he came to be Elvis, the more I thought he might have taken another road that could have led him to become someone like Pike. Elvis has chosen to engage life; Pike, in many ways, has stepped outside it. Somewhere in his past, he became “other.”
Once upon a time for, I guess, advertising purposes, a publisher dubbed Joe Pike a “sociopath.” He isn’t. I once thought of Elvis and Joe as a kind of yin and yang, a view that has been echoed by more than a few readers and reviewers. They are not. Nor is Pike simply Elvis Cole’s assassin; a handy-dandy, guilty-pleasure author’s device for getting Cole out of the morally queasy side waters of dropping the hammer on bad guys without benefit of judge, jury, constitutional protections, or hand-wringing after-action remorse. Pike is Pike. Like Elvis Cole, he is an underdog who has turned himself into a hero.
My books are about self-creation. I’m big on that. You can either be the victim of your past or rise above it. Both Elvis and Joe have done just that, but having risen isn’t a done-deal, over-and-out, now-I-can-relax kind of thing. Having risen, you have to maintain, because that whole “rising” business, well, it’s an ongoing process.
And there lies a key difference between Elvis and Joe. I suspect Joe Pike thinks about this stuff. I also suspect that Elvis Cole doesn’t-he just lives it, as natural to him as breathing or saying funny things, until “forced” to voice his philosophies in order to set a client straight.
Their example is the example of choices made. Cole doggedly embracing the “normal” and aggressively cultivating those parts of himself that consciously resist the darkness of his own experience-the Disney icons, the science-fiction films he enjoyed as a boy, the relaxed and comfortable attire (Hawaiian shirts and sneakers), the quippy, self-effacing sense of humor. These are the proud standards telling you this man is living life on his own terms. His very job-private investigator-tells you he holds himself apart. Cole is, at the end of the day, the product of these lifestyle choices. He would be a great guy to have a beer or catch a Dodgers game with.
Joe Pike is a conscious representative of our righteous rage at injustice. He is what happens when society fails.
The product of abusive childhood violence, Pike learned early that if you want justice, you must look to yourself. Pike was an only child living with his mother and a violent, alcoholic father at the edge of a small town. He and his mother suffered regular beatings from his father. Society did not save him-not the police, friends, or neighbors. No Eastwood-like hero rode into town to save Mrs. Pike and her young son. Joe learned his father’s lesson well. No one will save you, so you had better save yourself. You don’t wring your hands or try to “handle” a bully. You deal with a bully by employing an overwhelming physical response. Presented with a threat, you confront it head-on. Pike’s philosophy (and his rage) was boiled to its primal base: dominate or be dominated. So Pike set about preparing himself to control his environment, and does.
The seeds of this was the rage he felt at his own helplessness, I think, but Pike’s rage is not mindless. He knows that some part of himself was lost (probably in childhood), and he has spent much of his adult life, I think, learning to deal with his “otherness” and maybe even trying to give life to that dead part of himself. To think he is mindless-floating in the dark waters like his namesake fish, all cortical activity and no forebrain-would be a mistake.
Though I know many things about Pike, he is still a mystery obscured by the deep water. When Pike is within himself and seemingly disconnected from his surroundings, he has pulled back from the outer world to a place I describe as “the green world”-a natural, primal world where he feels safe. On the face of it, the green world represents the safety of the forest where he hid from his father. But the green world also represents the primitive nature of Pike’s character. We are one with, and part of, that nature. We are the animals in the forest, whether that forest is a leafy green glade or the sprawling city of Los Angeles. Our animal natures are revealed in either place.
Pike would probably tell you, if he thought it was worth spending the breath, that he has accepted the responsibility for his own security. Pike doesn’t give a lot of due to what we call “black-letter law.” Pike has a very strict moral and ethical code, but it is a code independent of written statutes.
When Larkin Conner Barkley asks him, in The Watchman, whether he feels remorse at having killed men, Pike is able to answer without hesitation.
And he doesn’t. He has accepted a certain matter-of-factness about these things. If a man threatens you, you put him down. It is the natural order. No sense worrying about it, so he doesn’t. These are not feelings or thoughts that Pike would share, so I’m not sure even Elvis knows how far away Pike goes when he goes to that green world. It’s as if Pike has settled into a temporary moment of transcendental calm like a Zen warrior, divorced from the chaos around him but at peace with it. We can’t see his thoughts in that deep water, and might not understand them even if we could.
The space between us and how Pike sees the world is part of his mystery. His lack of emotion suggests an inner landscape that has been carpet-bombed and left as barren as the desert surrounding Tikrit. It also suggests an emptiness waiting to be filled, and therein lies his tragic nature and the uniqueness of his friendship with Cole. Pike recognizes that Cole’s inner landscape is teeming with life. Pike admires this life and wonders at its depth and complexity, and would sacrifice himself without hesitation for his friend. This is not something a sociopath would do.
This is the stuff of heroes. These books are heroic fiction with liberal doses of myth and adventure, but I hope they are more than escapist fantasy. Though these are crime novels, the “crime novel” is simply the canvas upon which I have chosen to paint, and my subject matter, I believe, is larger than guns, gunfighting, macho posturing, and the relative thrills of wing chun arm traps and high-velocity action sequences, though these things are certainly part of these books, and I hope you enjoy them. I do!
I write about people. My thrill of accomplishment doesn’t come from the blind-side plot twist, but from that nuance of character that touches you, moves you, involves you, and, I hope, surprises you-not with the “aha!” of an unexpected plot reveal, but with the resonance of human understanding.
People always ask me where Joe and Elvis came from. Here’s the answer:
You are Joe Pike.
You are Elvis Cole.
Meaning that some part of you identifies with some part of them, so much so that in that instant of identification, you are them and can understand them. Pike’s loneliness. Cole’s longing. And in that moment what I am writing about isn’t just action and clues, but fully realized human beings.