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Murders most foul, from cyberspace to Franco's Spain.

By Richard Lipez
Sunday, February 27, 2005; Page BW15

Father Figure

Even at their goriest and most violent, there is a humanity about Robert Crais's Elvis Cole PI novels that sometimes borders on sentimentality but rarely tumbles over the edge. These L.A.-noir thrillers feel as if they might have been written by Raymond Chandler if he had been a nice guy. The Forgotten Man (Doubleday, $24.95) risks descending into bathos but then doesn't. It shows Cole often seized by emotion as he searches for the killer of an unidentified man whose last words -- according to the first cop to arrive at the back-alley shooting scene -- were a request for Cole's forgiveness. The man is carrying Los Angeles Times clippings about Cole, "the World's Greatest Detective," and he claims to be the PI's long lost father.

Who are we? Where did we come from? These questions are huge and loaded for people like Cole, whose wayward and delusional mother once cracked to the teenage boy that his father, never a part of his life, had been a "human cannonball." The 14-year-old Cole's indefatigable search for his father among the carnivals of Southern California ended in grief and failure. But Cole turns into that bereft and driven boy all over again when he encounters the aged shooting victim, who is tattooed up and down his chest and arms with upside-down Christian symbols.

Cole is hampered in his renewed quest by Jeff Pardy, the numb-brained police detective in charge of the case. (Though Crais mostly enlivens the genre, he still observes all the PI-novel conventions). Similarly true to form, Cole is helped surreptitiously by former LAPD colleagues, such as anxious, chain-smoking Carol Starkey, who has a major, unrequited crush on him. Then there's his sometime partner, gun shop owner Joe Pike. He assists justice in this case, though Pike is also the kind of ex-cop who once gave the LAPD its reputation for lawless brutality.

Crais alternates between Cole's first-person accounts of his investigation -- tracing a motel key card, interviewing call girls the dead man hired only to pray with him, tracking a decades-old insurance claim -- and tense, creepy third-person sections about a bloodthirsty psychopath whose place in all this becomes clear only near the end. "Frederick," as he is known, is the kind of ruined soul who, as a child, impaled the neighbor's dog and then moved on to bigger things.

The fiftyish Cole is a wonderfully sweet creation, with his sadness over his lost loves and his pleasure in his '66 yellow Corvette convertible, and Crais is just as serious and adept with his secondary characters. Starkey, the former bomb-squad techie, who lost both her last great love and a number of organs in an explosion, is believably and poignantly drawn. So is Ken Wilson, the PI with his own family problems -- who was hired repeatedly to return the teen runaway Cole to his mother, and who first told him, "You'd make a helluva detective."

Crais once wrote for TV crime shows like "Baretta," and his plotting is often too pat. However, where character and texture and decent spiritedness in a noir world are concerned, he's one of the real pros.

Cyberfamily Plot

Nuclear family dystopia is also at the center of Miyuki Miyabe's Shadow Family (Kodansha International, $22.95; translated from the Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter), a smartly observant police procedural about two Tokyo murders linked to the Internet.

Miyabe's award-winning 1996 debut novel, All She Was Worth, took on the destructive effects of consumer debt on families. In Shadow Family, we have four people so alienated from their families that they find one another through an Internet chat room and form an idealized household -- mother, father, junior, little sister -- that exists almost entirely in cyberspace. That changes when one of the four is viciously stabbed 24 times at a new home construction site and the police investigating the murder set out to reconstruct this "alternate family." They want a close look at the participants, and at someone else who has been watching the fantasy unfold.

The semi-documentary style that Miyabe sometimes employs doesn't gel right away, and the initial cascade of Japanese names is hard to sort out for those of us inexperienced with Japanese culture. But patience pays off, for Shadow Family blossoms into both a suspenseful murder mystery and an astute running commentary on the parallel cyberworld inside which millions of people now spend so much of their time. She makes this escape into manufactured reality especially understandable for people like Ryosoke, Karue and Kazumi Tokorada, whose unhappiness "had at its core a hard fact, one never spoken aloud: parents and children are not always compatible, and where differences are irreconcilable, ties of blood can end up turning into heavy chains."

He Loves the '80s

It's a tantalizing title -- The James Deans (Plume; paperback, $13) -- and no less apt because its meaning doesn't come clear until well into this pungent and morally complex PI job by Reed Farrel Coleman, one of the comers in the genre.

Moe Prager was an NYPD cop until he slipped on a piece of carbon paper in the late '70s and wrecked his knee. In 1983, in those early Reagan years when capitalism in America and around the world had regained so much of its crass, Gilded Age allure, he is a sometime PI and wine-store entrepreneur with his brother Aaron.

What Prager really aches for, however, is to return to the NYPD and carry a detective's shield. To him, that would be brave, honorable and interesting. Everything turns muddy when Prager does too honest and thorough a job for an ambitious state senator who wants to be cleared in the disappearance of an intern and resume his political career. Prager is offered his badge if he'll let some inconvenient facts about the senator slide by.

Reading a new PI novel set 22 years ago feels a little weird at first -- why then? -- but Coleman nails the time and place so adroitly that you ease right into it with him. There are the corrupt State Liquor Authority officials, the envelopes bulging with cash, a city struggling to emerge from financial and infrastructural ruin, and even, wittily, nouvelle cuisine. At a fancy political banquet, "Dinner was okay, if you were fond of starvation. [The] chef's favorite ingredient seemed to be big, mostly empty plates. Clearly, he had read too much French existentialism and wanted to make a statement about the importance and isolation of the individual in a starkly judgmental world."

Prager's angst in The James Deans isn't just professional. His wife, Katy, is depressed over a miscarriage, and his fear that he is losing her is a recurring strain in the narrative. Coleman rarely mentions the pop music of the era, maybe because it was too awful to have sloshing around in his head while he was working on the novel. The straight-ahead assurance of his writing, though, is reminiscent of the best pop performers of the earlier, classic-PI era, Jo Stafford maybe, or the young Sinatra.

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