The Forgotten Man is the eighth novel in a series featuring Elvis Cole, a private detective in Los Angeles. Most of the novels are set in southern California, although in one novel, Cole travelled to Baton Rouge and become romantically involved with Lucy Chenier, who moved to LA and then back to Lousiana after she became upset with the violence in his life. Like Robert Parker’s Spencer, Cole is a wisecracking, sarcastic, provocative detective. His investigations end in violence. He has few friends. His best friend is Joe Pike, a silent, self-possessed, cold character, a martial Yoda to Elvis’s Luke. In the earlier novels, he is an investigator but in this novel, he has become a combat shooting instructor who owns a gun store and shooting range to occupy himself when he isn’t watching Cole’s back.
In this outing, Crais gives us some of Cole’s back story. He was raised by his grandparents. His mother had a delusional disorder, and didn’t manage life well. He didn’t know his father, and his mother told him that his father was a human cannonball. In his childhood, Elvis often ran away to check out circuses to find the human cannonballs. As an adult, he is a detective, dressing in Hawaian shirts, living with a sense of wounded loss. “Send in the clowns, there ought to be clowns …”
A man covered in tattoos is found shot in an alley. The detective who finds him tells Cole that the man claimed, before dying, to be Cole’s father. The man was living under an alias, and it rapidly become clear that he was connected to a psychotic serial killer, perhaps as his companion. Cole looks for the tattoed man’s story and his killer while the serial killer looks for the tattoed man, and for Cole. The story is fast paced, but not mysterious, and wades through the emotional goo of bad psychology and symbolism.
Crais writes from multiple viewpoints and voices. He give us Cole in his own voice and his own head, but lots of scenes from the viewpoint of other characters, or from a general narrative perspective. Some chapters are very short – just a scene flashing by. It makes for quick reading, although it reads more like movie treatment. The scenes from the serial killer’s perspective make it clear that he has hasn’t killed the tattoed man. They contribute a little horror-movie suspense, but they are generally a distraction.
There are some good narrative and character scenes. Cole discovers that the tattoed man had called for out-call prostitutes 3 times. He finds the pimp/dispatcher and the three women which provides room for some good writing about the women and their boyfriends and their views on life. He brings in Carol Starkey—the lead character of his novel Demolition Angel—as a hardboiled detective with a girlish crush on Cole, which also opens up some good character writing. On the other hand, the serial killer is just a caricature of a monster. Some of his characters seem real and human, and some strut across the stage declaiming large emotions, reeking of cheap psychological insights.
Crais seems more intent on creating atmosphere and emotion than in making his plot credible or mysterious. He leaves obvious clues, and spells it out in scenes from other characters’ perspectives. It’s a quick, violent adventure with literary pretentions.