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Originally published Thursday, January 13, 2011 at 7:03 PM

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Book review

'The Sentry': Robert Crais' story of a strong man with a blind spot

Novelist Robert Crais' "The Sentry" showcases his character Joe Pike, an ultracool strongman whose weak spot for a young woman causes complications. Crais appears at noon Friday, Jan. 14, at Seattle Mystery Bookshop and at 6:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 14, at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Robert Crais

The author of "The Sentry" will sign his book at noon Friday at Seattle Mystery Bookshop, 117 Cherry Street, Seattle, free (206-587-5737 or www.seattlemystery.com). He will also read at 6:30 p.m. Friday at Third Place Books, 17171 Bothell Way N.E., Lake Forest Park, free (206-366-3333 or www.thirdplacebooks.com).

Early in his career, Robert Crais was a successful TV writer for "Hill Street Blues" and other smart shows. Is it any surprise that the guy knows a thing or two about telling a story?

As a novelist, Crais has written stand-alone books ("Hostage," "Demolition Angel"). He's known best, however, for a long-running series about a wisecracking Los Angeles private eye, Elvis Cole, and his seriously scary sidekick, Joe Pike.

In Crais' previous book, "The First Rule," the enigmatic Pike was in the forefront, and he was a compelling focal point indeed. In "The Sentry" (Putnam's, 306 pp., $26.95), Pike's back as a leading man, with Cole again acting as sidekick.

To say that Pike is the strong, silent type is a major understatement. He rarely says a word, he's awesomely muscled, and he's so cool that he wears his sunglasses at night. He's kind of like Lee Child's character Jack Reacher, or Robert B. Parker's Hawk, but without a smidgen of either one's humor or bemused outlook.

What Pike is, is smart, self- possessed, patient and relentless — just like the cop and mercenary he was in previous lives. He's also reliable — when Pike makes a promise or takes up a cause, it's a lock that he'll complete the mission. As Cole puts it, "Joe's built to save people."

As might be expected from a seasoned pro like Crais, the story is sure-footed and unequivocally hell-for-leather. Pike is minding his own business, filling his car's gas tank, when he sees an altercation at a modest sandwich shop across the street. (In a nod to the author's Louisiana roots, the shop's specialty is po'boys.)

Our man walks over and sees a couple of guys beating up the shop owner. Naturally, Pike sets things right in his own direct fashion. But he's intrigued when the owner doesn't want further help from him or the cops. Pike's even more intrigued when he meets the shop owner's delectable niece.

This last bit reveals an unexpected vulnerable side of Pike's character. He's seriously smitten but has no clue about how to ask for a date. Luckily, the object of his affection, Dru Rayne, is willing to take the lead on that one.

However, she's just as reluctant as her uncle to accept Pike's offer of protection. His trouble antennae go on high alert, and he starts hanging around just in case. A pair of federal agents who say they're on a drug-related sting operation are also skirting the edges of things.

As Pike's vigil continues, the body count rises and the action quickens, especially as a psycho killer (glimpsed briefly in a New Orleans-set prologue) starts closing in.

In a way, Pike's single-mindedness leaves him blinkered, obsessed as he is with keeping Dru from harm. In terms of a cardinal rule of suspense fiction — that things are never as they seem — it's Cole who sees more clearly. But if it's pure, relentlessly forward-moving action you're after, then Joe Pike is your man.

Adam Woog's column on crime and mystery fiction appears on the second Sunday of each month in The Seattle Times.

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