Author: Robert Crais

Title: Taken

Publisher: G.P. Putnam's Sons

Robert Crais has put Elvis Cole, the detective and protagonist of many of his novels, through many challenges since Cole's introduction in 1988's The Monkey's Raincoat.

In his latest offering, Taken, Crais uses the timely issue of human trafficking as the backdrop for Cole's detecting exploits. Although Cole does his share of detective work in this installment, the case isn't puzzling enough nor is the pace quick enough to earn its place as a top-notch work.

In Taken, Cole arrives on the scene when he's approached by Nita Morales, mom of Krista Morales a college student who's been abducted, along with her boyfriend Jack Berman, during a classic wrong-place-wrong-time scenario in the Anza-Borrego Desert outside San Diego.

They're checking out the wreckage of a 1972 drug smuggler's plane when real life cartel members roll up to hijack another group's human cargo. In the mad scramble between coyotes (guides who bring Mexican immigrants across the border), pollos (slang term for the immigrants), and hijackers, Jack and Krista get snatched.

Cole takes on the case mostly out of compassion for Nita, who entrusts Cole with a tiny Jiminy Cricket figure as a way of encouraging him to do the right thing. This theme of honesty and perseverance runs throughout the novel, in the process endearing Cole to the reader. Even though he's a thinly-drawn character, Cole gets enough good-guy traits to be sympathetic.

In the process of hunting down Morales and Berman, Cole reaches out to Jon Stone and Joe Pike, both ex-military types who will be familiar to Crais' readers from previous installments. The trio form a sort of investigative triangle, coordinating their attack with precision as they close in on the house where the taken couple is being held. Along the way, Cole gets himself into some scrapes with a Korean gang - the Double Dragons - as well as a Syrian mercenary, making for a real United Nations of Crime feel.

What's most interesting about Taken is the insight it gives into the political maneuverings - if they can be called that - behind the human trafficking networks cris-crossing North America. If Crais' information is to be believed, the illegal immigrant trade is merely the tip of a much more sinister iceberg, as other nefarious organizations swoop in and pick off immigrants at will, holding them for ransom and extorting money out of loved ones until they can no longer pay. Then, they kill the victims, wait for information on the whereabouts of more immigrants crossing the border, and repeat the process. As Crais points out, a particularly well-connected and industrious group can clear over $1 million a year this way. That's scary.

As a piece of storytelling, however, Taken doesn't really shift into high gear. Crais writes in a stripped-down style that lends itself to fast pace. But the multiple, shifting perspectives - some in first person, some in third - along with the lack of depth given to Berman and Morales, the kidnap victims, makes things never feel urgent. The genuine affection the two feels for each other is touching, but they never seem like real people in real danger. Other than the obvious human desire to not see anyone tortured or killed, we don't get yanked into their conflict like we should for a story like this to work.

It's clear we've not seen the last of Elvis Cole. He's an appealing blend of ruffian and sentimentalist, a nice mix. While Taken isn't the most compelling read, it's still a solid detective story that breaks some new ground in the hot-button issue of illegal immigration.  

*This review first published 2/8/2012