Suspect

By Robert Crais. G.P. Putnam’s Sons. $27.95.

This absorbing, suspenseful novel represents a major plot departure for the popular author amidst the introduction of new characters he might hopefully carry forth in new offerings.

Capturing the combustible feel of war on a dirt roadway in Afghanistan and late-night crime on a deserted street in Los Angeles, Crais moves forward with the book’s central figures Los Angeles police officer Scott James and Maggie, an 85-pound German shepherd trained to sniff out explosives but suddenly thrust into a new environmental corridor.

Both are battle-scarred after having lost their partners. James and his cohort Stephanie Anders are searching for an all-night noodle house late one night and find themselves in the middle of a gun battle with five masked men. By the time it’s over, Stephanie lays dead on the street and Scott is shot three times, lapsing into unconsciousness and later undergoing several surgeries.

Maggie, a Military Working Dog, loses her mate and finds herself seriously injured when a terrorist detonates a concealed bomb while approaching her and her master on Marine patrol in Afghanistan. While she stands guard over her dying handler, terrorists shoot her.

Time heals wounds – and losses — albeit slowly for both, who find themselves on a tryout basis months later teamed up with a new Los Angeles Police Department K-9 platoon. The damaged but determined pair are both suffering from PTSD (yes, dogs harbor the after effects of traumatic injury and loss, too) and physical injuries as they seek to overcome incredible challenges thrown their way by another strong character, Sgt. Dominick Leland, head of the K-9 unit.

The hard-nosed Leland takes a gamble on the pair while challenging them daily and becoming their quiet booster behind the scenes.

Yes, there is the mystery element here, as you’d expect in any Crais volume. But the human-animal bond trumps that, largely because of the influence of a dog on the author’s life years ago.

“My big dog, Yoshi, died 16 years ago,” says Crais. “He was 12 years old and had been my dog since six weeks after his birth. He grew from a fuzzy, black-and-white sausage into a towering, 105-pound guardian who looked like a scowling bear. During most of his 12 years, he protected my family while I was away, and all of us when I was home. His loyalty was absolute. At the end of his days, he died in my arms, me blubbering like a baby. I have never replaced him. I have cats now and love them dearly, but I have never been able to replace my dog. Loyalty, it seemed to me, flows both ways. But as the years have gone on, and through the writing of ‘Suspect,’ I think I may be ready again.

“From a dog’s point of view, the dog-human relationship is simple. They do what they do for two reasons: to please us or save us. It was out of respect for this special relationship that I strove to present Maggie’s world as accurately as our current understanding of canine behavior allows. I did not anthropomorphize Maggie or create a mind-reading, talking, four-pawed human in a black-and-tan jacket. To have done this would have disrespected the nature and depth of her devotion to Scott, Yoshi’s devotion to me, and the devotion of all dogs to their human partners.”

To authenticate the moving scenarios, Crais did plenty of homework. In the process, this is a moving plot that assumes a brisk tempo after the slow early development of characters and relationships. The heart of it however is wrapped around the strengthening bond between Scott and Maggie, which sometimes takes them out of bounds with police protocol, yet leaves the reader within arm’s reach with a clear visualization of the ever-changing challenges.

Discussing Maggie’s prowess with another K 9 platoon member, Scott says, “She smells like we see. Just laying here, she’s picking up thousands of scents, just like we’re seeing a thousand shades of green and blue and whatever. “

Their world is all about scents and sounds, yet dependent on trust, touch and tenacity. A few terrific chapters are written from Maggie’s perspective, a mind-boggling challenge for any other author not as familiar with dog psyche as Crais.

Finding his former partner Stephanie’s killers while developing a healing bond with new partner Maggie is Scott’s driving force throughout. Inside his room, he goes to Stephanie’s picture and says, “I’m not moving on, and I’m not going to quit. I did not leave you behind, and I’m not leaving now.” That poignant comment is based on a dying Stephanie’s plea to him not to leave her in a moment of need as he crawls to a radio several feet away to call for help. But that separation gnaws at him until the final pages.

As the two wounded warriors work to solve the case they face one internal departmental obstacle after another, including a belief by some that their damaged goods are simply too much to overcome, leaving them the challenge of proving everyone wrong. And they do while healing each other in the process.

The title, Crais says, stems from the fact that both Scott and Maggie are “suspect” of whether they are fit for duty, and secondly, Scott becomes a murder suspect himself as he and Maggie track down Stephanie’s killers.

“Suspect” is a bumpy ride of psychological turbulence and true grit, yet connects powerfully with the reader around every suspenseful entryway and corner. I’m a first-time Crais reader and anxiously await a Scott and Maggie sequel.