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Novelist loses a dog, finds a heroine in 'Suspect'

By Christian DuChateau, CNN
updated 9:33 AM EST, Mon January 21, 2013
Robert Crais has created a unique, endearing canine crime fighter named Maggie in his 19th novel,
Robert Crais has created a unique, endearing canine crime fighter named Maggie in his 19th novel, "Suspect."
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • In Robert Crais' new novel, a pair of wounded warriors heal each other
  • Both main characters -- a longtime police officer and a war dog -- have PTSD
  • Crais says he found the world of military- and police-working dogs eye-opening

(CNN) -- There's good and bad news regarding Robert Crais' new novel, "Suspect." First, the bad: There's no sign of uber-popular, crime-fighting duo, Elvis Cole and Joe Pike. Now the good: There is a dog.

Hear me out.

Scuttling his most popular characters is a risky move for the award-winning Crais. After all, 15 of his 18 previous novels featured fan favorites Elvis and Joe, including "Taken," his most recent, which hit No. 1 on The New York Times best-seller list.

Before fervent fans complain, consider that the star of "Suspect" isn't just any animal. Crais has created a unique, endearing canine crime fighter that steals every scene she's in.

Here's the setup. Los Angeles cop Scott James barely survives a high-powered shootout with a mysterious criminal gang. His partner is killed. Scott is left broken, both physically and mentally. Worse, he blames himself for his partner's death. Now unfit for duty as a patrol officer, he moves to the Los Angeles Police Department canine unit, where he is paired with a German shepherd named Maggie.

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Like Scott, Maggie is on the mend. She served three tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, using her powerful sense of smell to sniff out explosives, before losing her handler to a bomb blast.

Both man and dog are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Together this pair of wounded warriors must help heal each other, while searching for clues in a last-chance case that could be their salvation or their untimely end.

Like all of Crais' work, "Suspect" is an intense, fast-paced and thrilling page turner. He's winning raves from critics and has even made a fan out of the editor at Dog Fancy magazine, Ernie Slone, who says, "The power of the human-animal bond, and the amazing ways that dogs comprehend our world, have never been better portrayed."

CNN recently spoke to the author from his Los Angeles home about his latest book as well as old dogs and new tricks. The following is an edited transcript:

CNN: What was the spark behind your new novel?

Robert Crais: I had a big Akita, Yoshi, who was fabulous. I loved him. We lost him when he was 12, and I've never been able to replace him. Normally, most people lose a pet and get another and keep going on. But it just felt wrong to me; it felt disloyal. That was 15 years ago. I've been thinking more and more about him recently. That connection caused me to start doing research into the whole human-dog relationship. Through that I became aware of and interested in military-working dogs.

I learned about the super-intimate connection between these dogs and their canine handlers. In many cases, when they're deployed, the handler and dog literally spend 24 hours a day together. They eat together and sleep together because of the nature of their job. It's a bond unlike any other human-canine bond.

I encountered stories where a handler would be injured or killed, and the dog would be so protective and defensive of the handler, even though the person might be dead or seriously wounded, that the dog wouldn't even let our guys who were trying to help approach, because the dog and handler are a pack. I started reading every book that was available on how dogs think, how they perceive the world, the nature of the relationship between man and dog. It was a world that simply swallowed me because I found it so fascinating and interesting.

CNN: You also spent time with police dogs?

Crais: From military-working dogs, I got involved and educated in police canine units, which are different but in many ways the same thing because the human handler and the dog are partners. I went out with the LAPD canine units. The dogs are amazing and to talk with these guys, to see them work with their dogs really informed the book. It was a whole new world for me.

Everyone knows dogs. Most people love dogs. I think most American families probably have a dog, but I don't think people really realize or understand just how wonderful and special dogs are. The more I learned about the co-dependency between man and dog and how deep that relationship can be, not in an anthropomorphized way but in a genuine and real way.

I found it so beautiful, so moving and special that I just had to write about it. Scenes were just popping out of my head. With this particular book it was probably the most emotional that I've written out of my 19 novels. It was a book that I absolutely attacked because I felt so passionate about the subject matter.

CNN: Part of "Suspect" is told through Maggie's eyes. Was it difficult to write from a dog's point of view?

Crais: Actually, no. I guess I should say yes, but surprisingly it wasn't. I had read so many different books and articles on how dogs perceive the world -- their sense of smell, how dogs think, why dogs do what they do -- that when I finally was writing from Maggie's point of view it came very naturally. It was easy for me to imagine how in fact a dog does perceive what's going on around her. I found it a very, very natural thing to write. I fell in love with Maggie. I tried to make her as real as possible. Maggie isn't a cartoon dog. She doesn't think the way we think. I wanted her to represent for real how dogs perceive us and the world around them.

CNN: In "Suspect," Scott and Maggie both suffer from PTSD, but I didn't know that affected dogs?

Crais: When I was doing the research, I learned about military-working dogs suffering from canine PTSD. Until that point, I wasn't aware that military dogs or police canines or any animal can suffer from PTSD, just like any person. Quite a few of the dogs that come back from Afghanistan or Iraq or police dogs that are involved in violent confrontations where there's gunfire can in fact exhibit the symptoms and suffer from PTSD.

At Lackland Air Force Base, they make an effort to retrain military dogs that suffer from PTSD. It's a lengthy, long process. The treatment is much the same as it would be for people, but it's a difficult road back. It seemed to me that a dog like Maggie would certainly suffer from PTSD and ditto her handler Scott. These two characters, they needed each other. She can help him heal; he can help her heal. I really wanted to explore what they're going through together.

CNN: So after this are you ready for another dog?

Crais: In a wonderful way I think the immersion that I went through with this book has been very healing. It's much easier for me now to imagine sharing my life with another dog. Maybe another Yoshi, maybe a German shepherd, but I can see that happening again now. All I have to do is convince my wife.

CNN: What's next? Will Elvis Cole and Joe Pike return in your next book?

Crais: I think the next project is going to be an Elvis and Joe book. I will probably bring back Jon Stone, too. I can't say these things definitively because I have this horrible habit of falling in love with my characters, and even though "Suspect" was written as a standalone book, I keep wondering if I can come up with a story where Scott and Maggie somehow have to get involved with Elvis and Joe. If I can bring their two worlds together, that might be fun for me to write and fun for my fans to read. I just have to come up with the right story.

Read an excerpt from "Suspect."

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