The Forgotten Man
by Robert Crais
Published by Doubleday
352 pages, 2005
Reviewed by Anthony Rainone
Los Angeles private eye Elvis Cole has handled serious trouble in the past either with humor or, when necessary, deadly force. But trouble hits closer to home than ever before in The Forgotten Man, Robert Crais' 10th entry in the Cole series. Forlorn in spirit after his lawyer girlfriend, Lucy Chenier, ended their relationship, following the kidnapping and rescue of her 10-year-old son, Ben (events recalled in The Last Detective, 2003), Elvis is temporarily shaken out of his woes by an early morning call from LAPD Detective Kelly Diaz. She tells him that a man, shot and killed earlier -- the apparent victim of a robbery -- had named Elvis as his son. The fact that the deceased possessed newspaper clippings recalling Elvis' pivotal role in Ben's recovery seems to buttress his claims. Elvis is skeptical, and reacts with the emotional distance of a son who'd long ago been abandoned by a father he never knew. That false indifference soon succumbs, however, to the honesty of the never-healed wound.
I put down the phone but still did not move. I had not moved in hours. Outside, a light rain fell as quietly as a whisper. I must have been waiting for Diaz to call. Why else would I have been awake that night and all the other nights except to wait like a lost child in the woods, a forgotten child waiting to be found?
When Diaz gives Elvis permission to work the case and help identify this septuagenarian John Doe, who was heavily tattooed with "self-inflicted" crosses, Elvis embarks on a personal journey of discovery that is both mesmerizing and heart-wrenching. Assisted by criminalist John Chen, from the LAPD's Scientific Investigation Division, and despite the thinly veiled hostility shown by lead detective investigator Jeff Pardy, "the World's Greatest Detective" (as the media have recently dubbed Cole) learns that the dead man had been staying at a hotel under the name "Herbert Faustina" -- one of several aliases he'd employed. Whoever he was, Faustina seemed to be holding onto terrible secrets, and a guilty conscience to go with them. It appears that Faustina employed a local call-girl service. But he'd eschewed the normal physical gratifications for hour-long prayer sessions with the women -- time spent praying for his soul, not theirs.
As he did in both of his last two Elvis outings, L.A. Requiem (1999) and The Last Detective, Crais mixes first-person narrative in The Forgotten Man with third-person narration. This author's fans should be used to that dual structure by now, but a newcomer to the series might find it somewhat jarring. First-person is more immediate, and it's the voice used for Elvis; but first-person also limits the reader's knowledge of upcoming events, as they are influenced by Elvis' adversaries. And that would have been too bad in The Forgotten Man, which introduces our hero to a particularly formidable foe. Through third-person narration, it's established that Faustina had a truly evil colleague in crime, known as Frederick Conrad, who plans to avenge his late partner's slaying. Conrad is a sociopath with his own stash of buried bones, who comes to believe -- through the most twisted logic -- that Elvis killed Faustina. At this point, the novel moves from Cole investigating the reality of Faustina being his father, to the additional plot line of Conrad hunting Elvis down.
Crais is a master at story pacing, and he proves that again in The Forgotten Man. Despite its less-than-seamless back-and-forth alternation of narrative voices, the novel offers one lengthy, satisfying adrenaline rush. In addition, it makes one rethink Elvis' character and wonder at the gene pool from which he is descended, if Faustina truly is his progenitor.
While the principal action in these pages is supplied by Elvis and his P.I. partner, ex-cop Joe Pike, who at one point must jointly confront heavies hired by the call-girl service Faustina had used (a clash provoked unintentionally by Cole trying to track down and interview the hookers), and also by Conrad's persistent stalking of the unaware Elvis, the emotional investment is found in Elvis finally coming to grips with a painful loss in his life -- his abandonment by his father, even before he was born. In The Last Detective, readers received glimpses of Elvis' traumatic exploits in Vietnam. In The Forgotten Man, Crais goes still deeper into his protagonist's psyche. Elvis had a difficult relationship with his mother, who appears to have been unbalanced. The future detective maintained a bond with her only in hopes of being reunited with his father. Crais explains:
His mother vanished three or four times every year for as long as he could remember. He woke on those mornings to find her gone -- no word, no note, just gone. He never knew when or if she would return, and when she did, she never told him (or his grandfather or his aunt) where she had been or what she had done. She was like that. But every time she left, he -- secretly in his secret heart -- prayed that she was going to find his father, and this time -- this time -- would bring him home. Which is why he loved her still; for the hope that one day she would bring his father home.
When Elvis was still a boy, his "crazy bitch" of a mother would tell him only that his old man worked as a "human cannonball" in a circus. So Elvis ran away from home repeatedly, searching for his father among the employees of passing carnivals. This was a cruel fate to be visited upon the vulnerable young man. Reared primarily by his grandfather, Elvis had to be brought back home time and again by Ken Wilson, a private investigator his granddad had hired to find him. In one scene, Wilson displays amazement at the boy's hopeful persistence:
"This is the third time I snagged you, and before me was that other guy. How many times have you gone chasing after a carnival?"
In some respects, Ken Wilson became a surrogate dad to Elvis, and one can't help but think that the gumshoe influenced Elvis' later choice of profession. As Wilson tells him:
"You have a knack for this, I gotta give you that. Here you are, a kid, and you track these bastards down like a professional. You'd make a helluva detective."
As usual in this series, Pike has Elvis' back -- and Elvis needs him more than ever in The Forgotten Man. Daunted by the emotional stakes involved in revealing Herbert Faustina's true identity -- and in the process, a new landscape of his own history -- Cole lets his guard down a bit, with potentially dangerous results. For the first time in their partnership, Joe Pike has to worry about Elvis holding his own ("Pike didn't say anything. He studied me, and some small part of me was left feeling ashamed"). Cole is contending, too, with personal distractions. With the lovely Ms. Chenier essentially out of the picture, Carol Starkey, the former Bomb Squad detective (and star of Demolition Angel, 2000), who's now working the LAPD's Juvenile section, makes her return and even attempts to make a move on Elvis ("You must be the densest man in Los Angeles and I am certainly the most pathetic female, so why can't we just get on with this?"), though without much success.
Robert Crais demonstrates here a welcome willingness to expose Elvis Cole's vulnerabilities and delve into "touchy-feely" psychological territory, which lifts this author's fiction above the all-too-typical tough-guy fare. In many ways, The Forgotten Man is a love story as much as it is a private-eye novel, addressing the unspoken love between Elvis and Pike, the longing love of Elvis for his unknown father, and the unrequited love of Carol Starkey. In fact, Elvis' fervent search for his sire leads him to a place he never expected to visit -- a quiet cemetery where the people he actually did know in his life are now buried. It is there that the World's Greatest Detective locates his love for his mother, once again. Crais has steered Elvis deftly from traditional private detection cases, to those of a more personal nature. Whether this current path continues or not, it doesn't matter. Thanks to the versatility of both the character and his creator, Elvis has staying power. So wherever the next book takes us, bring it on. | March 2005
Anthony Rainone is a contributing editor of January Magazine.