Pulpy, suspenseful, and unpretentious, let's hear it for the B crime novel. The middlebrow genre's best practitioners, like George Pelecanos and Dennis Lehane, show unexpected soul and imagination in their moody, fascinating whodunits, but even lesser lights like Robert Crais deserve a hand. Since 1987, Crais has produced 12 brisk thrillers stocked with enough likable characters, demented killers, and macabre plot twists to see you happily through a transcontinental flight.
Crais launches his latest work, The Forgotten Man, with a typically grisly set piece: Two cops discover the bloodied corpses of a man, woman, and 12-year-old boy strewn throughout a small stucco house in the Southern California town of Temecula. (Crais rarely stints on gore: ''The weapon used to kill these people rose and fell many times, the blood it picked up splashing the walls.'') Tiny red footprints surround the bodies and lead to a back bedroom where a traumatized 4-year-old girl cowers, apparently overlooked by the crazed killer.
Cut to a nasty new murder scene: Elvis Cole the laid-back private investigator who narrates most of Crais' books receives a call from the police at 3:58 a.m., summoning him to view the body of an unidentified man who has just expired in an alley. Shot in the side, the heavily tattooed elderly victim ''drowned in his own blood.'' With his last breath, he announced that he was Cole's father.
He just may be. Cole's unstable single mom never revealed who sired him, and all his life Cole has wondered. (The long sentimental flashback dramatizing Cole's childhood suffering will, I predict, be universally and rightfully skimmed over.) A subsequent search of the dead man's cheap motel room reveals a copy of Hard-X Times, $6,240 in cash, and a stack of clippings about Cole. With the help of a few Crais regulars, like the tough/tender cop Carol Starkey (possible new love interest for Cole) and laconic ex-Marine Joe Pike, Cole zips around Southern California in his dirty Corvette Sting Ray investigating his possible father's murky and sordid past.
What does he find? That though the ''forgotten man'' went by the name Herbert Faustina, this was a flimsy alias for yet another alias. That Faustina who favored crucifix tats hired hookers to kneel and read the Bible with him. That the delusional fantasies of a deranged gas station attendant have something to do with the ancestral mystery, as does a police report on the long-ago skewering of a family's pet collie. Crais won't win any prizes for prose style: He's too keen on the cringeworthy cliché (''Janice talked so much it was like drowning in a verbal Niagara Falls''). And a few of his wilder plot developments stretch credulity. But you won't easily put down this lurid, fast-paced, solid B thriller.