HARD, HARD CITY

By Jim Fusilli

Putnam. 278 pp. $24.95

Having read perhaps 200 thrillers in the past four years -- and, I insist, maintained my sanity -- I sometimes try to sort things out. There are far, far more people writing thrillers than you can imagine, hundreds of them, maybe thousands. The mind boggles at the thought of these legions of seemingly harmless scribblers, brooding in their little rooms, conjuring new ways to kill people, but that is not our topic today.

Some of these writers produce awful books (including, obviously, some regulars on the bestseller lists), and multitudes more are just so-so. There is also a sizable elite -- I could probably identify 20, and there may be that many more I haven't yet discovered -- who can be counted on to turn out solid, intelligent, readable novels. Among them are Robert Crais, T. Jefferson Parker, Lee Child, John Lescroart, Karin Slaughter, Donna Leon, John Sandford, John Lawton and Peter Robinson, to name a few.

Finally there are a few writers I find exceptional, because they bring some new dimension to their books, some passion or clarity of vision that sets them apart. Among them, on my list, are Thomas Harris, who unleashed Dr. Hannibal Lecter upon a defenseless world; Michael Connelly, for the skill and purity of his Harry Bosch series; Dennis Lehane, for the wild inventiveness of his Kenzie-Gennaro series and "Shutter Island" and for the majesty of "Mystic River"; the Scot Ian Rankin, that madman across the water who has given us the disreputable, indestructible Inspector Rebus; and Alan Furst, whose stylish spy novels are showing us the horrors of World War II in a new light.

Jim Fusilli's four novels about the New York investigator Terry Orr clearly put him among those we can count on for first-rate entertainment, and he may yet rise to my highest category -- damn my conservatism, but I'd like a little more evidence before making that leap. Fusilli's fine new "Hard, Hard City" reads seamlessly, but three distinct elements go into it. First, his plot. A friend of Orr's daughter asks him to find a 15-year-old boy who is missing. As you might imagine, this simple case of a missing boy does not stay simple. The boy's father is a crooked financier who lives in, and seemingly controls, rich little Silver Haven, N.J. When Orr unwisely goes there, he receives the first of several beatings from the financier's hired gun. When he meets with Silver Haven's corrupt sheriff, he is greeted with the New Jersey version of a warning we have more often heard in Tombstone and Dodge City: "Stranger, we don't need you in these parts." Orr is not deterred, of course, and he soldiers on as the case of the missing boy expands to include murder, an SEC investigation, New York City politics and more.

If not an original plot, it is skillfully handled here, and ultimately it is overshadowed by the novel's second, and strongest element, which is Orr's tormented personal life and the extended family that surrounds and comforts him. In the first novel of the series, Orr's wife and infant son were apparently pushed under an oncoming subway train by a madman. When the police investigation bogged down, Orr, a writer, set out to find the killer. But in the third novel new evidence emerged that Orr's wife may have had a lover, whose presence in the subway contributed to the disaster. Orr is driven half-mad by this possibility but fights to maintain his close relationship with his 15-year-old daughter, Bella, a lovely portrait of a precocious, testy, basketball-playing, boy-discovering teen.

If all you want is crime, you won't like the Orr books. You have to care about him and his relationships, which include numerous other teenagers, the cook and the dog, and his romance with the admirable Julie, which is threatened by the intellectual Orr's dumb-guy inability to speak the magic words "I love you." With each new book, the troubled Orr and his budding daughter and quirky friends become as real as any cast I can think of in a crime series.

The other distinguishing element of Fusilli's novels, as many reviewers have noted, is his ability to capture the sights and sounds of Manhattan. Sometimes these moments are romantic ("Julie and I were walking in midtown, over by the Algonquin, and we caught a glimpse of Grand Central. The sunlight, as thick as honey, cast shadows that seemed to hide between the columns, beneath the cornice"), but more often they are hard-edged glimpses of cabdrivers, bag ladies, cops, traffic jams and other New York noir. In all of this, Fusilli, who has reviewed music for the Wall Street Journal and books for the Boston Globe, is a writer with a rich and distinct voice.

If there is a purpose to these Monday reviews, it is to point out the excitement and variety to be found in much of today's popular fiction. If you have fallen into the habit of reading the same favorites over and over -- Grisham, Grafton, Sandford, whatever -- branch out a bit. Live dangerously! This year's Grisham/Grafton is likely to be much like last year's, and there are new thrills to be found. Fusilli is one example, and so are the other writers mentioned above and many more besides who may surprise and delight you. (It helps if you are assisted by a competent reviewer but, like all good men, they are hard to find.)