Meet Joe Pike. For 20 years, he’s been the taciturn, downbeat partner of Elvis Cole, the randy, flippant hero of Robert Crais’ detective fiction. Now, Pike is forced out of the shadows when he gets an assignment he may not refuse. He owes a man a return favor that turns out to be a doozy of a baby-sitting job involving a billionaire’s daughter hunted by a gang of armed and dangerous international thugs. A couple of hundred million in drug-cartel money is at stake, and, as might be expected, gunfire ensues.Not that anyone can hit Joe Pike. He is no ordinary ex–LAPD cop, former mercenary, present-day L.A. private eye. He is impervious, impregnable and impossible. Wearing a surplus rucksack loaded with four 10-pound bags of Gold Medal flour, he sprints up the Fourth Street stairs, overlooking Santa Monica Canyon, 20 times during his routine 3 a.m. run. Each 189-step pass is as tall as a nine-story building. Pike could have made it to the top of the Twin Towers twice without pausing to take a breath. Out in the middle of Ocean Avenue, while coyotes look on, he touches his palms to the asphalt, raises his legs straight up into a handstand and does vertical pushups, just to feel his body working. He can also do pushups on this thumbs. When he speaks — that is, if he speaks — it’s in four- and five-word sentences composed solely of nouns and verbs. Usually he emits one-word utterances. He doesn’t indulge, in other words, in frivolous banter. He’d rather sit alone in the dark, wearing sunglasses, disassembling his Smith & Wesson.Pike’s loner reveries are interrupted when 22-year-old Larkin Conner Barkley, daughter of industrialist Conner Barkley, is tossed into his lap for safekeeping. Larkin is being pursued by Alexander Liman Meesh, a murderer with ties to big-time Ecuadorian cocaine smugglers. Or so Pike is led to believe. Larkin is delivered to Pike in a handoff in Pearblossom, after a hit squad barely missed gunning her down. Up to then, Miss Barkley had been in the care of federal marshals, who’d claimed that she was a material witness in a money-laundering case. Spitting epithets at her father’s lawyer, coquettishly taunting everyone else, Larkin is wrestled into Pike’s custody. To the spoiled, Paris Hilton–like alley cat prone to prancing about in a see-through bra and lime-green thong, being chained to Pike is tantamount to being tossed into a padded cell.Fortunately for us and for Miss Barkley, Pike can withstand the nerve-fraying narcissism. In a febrile effort to gain control of her putative gaoler, she slips her fingers between her thighs and offers to masturbate in front of him. He shuts down her puerile wantonness with this: “Day I got to Central Africa, I watched a woman. Her family had been murdered that morning, just two hours before we rolled in. She cut the fingers off her left hand, one by one, one each for her husband and her four children. She started with the thumb.” Larkin neatly folds her hands on her lap, and falls silent. For a fleeting moment, Pike, if not happy, is at least a bit less unhappy.Crais’ newest protagonist is something of a moral atavist interested in undoing his antagonists rather than in propping up the shaky scaffolds of justice. He blithely tortures one of the Ecuadorian hit men assigned to Larkin, pressing his index finger into the man’s collarbone, touching off pain like a root canal sans Novocaine. He kills him and six others as if it were target practice. (Luckily, these guns for hire are always shooting wide, while Pike always pierces their vital organs with the sang-froid of a Cordon Bleu chef butchering a rabbit.)And when Pike catches up to his genuine adversary — a Czech businessman named Vahnich who bankrolls international terrorists — he guns him down too. Vahnich has surrendered, is holding his hands above his head, but Pike levels, fires and says, “I . . . hate bullies. Live with it.”At moments like this in The Watchman, you want to laugh. Pike is so thoroughly self-involved and his crusade is so deeply imbedded in his self-image, you suspect that Crais is mocking his own creation. Following Pike around through Los Angeles, from the hills of Echo Park to a gangbanger’s high council in Boyle Heights, at times feels like the adventures of Dirty Harry as dictated by Dirty Harry. Still, despite the character’s improbable sanctimony, Pike is a good sleuth, and tagging along with this frontier gunslinger as he unravels the mystery of who’s trying to get Larkin Conner Barkley proves entertaining. Crais knows how to plot a thriller.It seems likely that Pike will be back, slipping silently through predawn L.A., cloaked in a sleeveless T-shirt, running shoes and packing a .380 Kermit. Reluctantly, he’ll take his next assignment. Relentlessly, he’ll track down the next villain. Remorselessly, he’ll shoot ’em dead. Live with it. THE WATCHMAN | By ROBERT CRAIS | Simon & Schuster | 292 pages | $26 hardcover

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