Ferrigno Changes Scenery, but Not Setting

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Flush with the success of his debut romantic crime thriller, "The Horse Latitudes," Robert Ferrigno abandoned his two-bedroom apartment in Long Beach in 1991 and moved his family to a place where he could get more bang for his buck: Kirkland, Wash., a woodsy, lakefront community 12 minutes from downtown Seattle.

The former Orange County newspaper feature writer and one-time professional poker player, who has set all four of his stylishly written noir thrillers along the L.A.-Orange County axis, is firmly entrenched in Kirkland, where he and his wife, Jody, are raising their four children on a third of an acre dotted with towering pines.

But don't expect Ferrigno to embark on a literary change of venue and begin writing about the Pacific Northwest any time soon.

His fifth novel, "Heartbreaker" (Pantheon; $24), opens in sultry South Florida but quickly shifts to familiar Ferrigno turf: glam and gritty SoCal--from a hilltop faux Italian villa in Laguna Beach to a gang-guarded tract house in Santa Ana to the set of a C-grade action flick in Hollywood.

Set one of his novels in Seattle? Forget it, says the author.

"It would only be useful if you were doing more of a comedic book," said Ferrigno, 52. "Seattle takes itself very seriously, so the only way to write about it would be to mock its self-importance. Seattle does consider itself the epicenter of cool and technology, which, of course, is ridiculous. I see this as an enticing little backwater, and I like that as a place to live, but there's no flash or snap here."

Flash and snap sum up the work of the author, who generates the kind of reviews publishers hope to quote on book jackets.

"Heartbreaker," featuring Ferrigno's signature blend of sex and violence, sardonic humor and a colorfully offbeat cast of characters, is earning the author critical hosannas.

The novel opens with Miami undercover narcotics officer Val Duran on the penthouse patio of a "Jeopardy"-loving drug kingpin called Junior. After being forced to helplessly stand by as he witnesses the brutal murder of his undercover partner, Duran seeks revenge by killing Junior's two henchmen.

Fleeing Miami for L.A., Duran finds work as an action coordinator on low-budget thrillers and bides his time waiting for Junior to show up. Planning to kill Junior before Junior kills him, Duran lures the drug lord to the West Coast by appearing on "Jeopardy" and writing Junior's name as the final-round answer.

Duran, meanwhile, finds himself falling for Kyle Abbott, an intelligent and fiercely competitive marine biologist whose wealthy Laguna Beach family is due for some major dysfunction: It seems Kyle's charming stepbrother, Kilo--nicknamed after being busted for possession of high-end marijuana--has gotten involved in a plot to kill his stepmother to gain control of his father's fortune.

Just your typical Ferrigno plot, with a seductively sadistic redhead named Jackie and a lethally ruthless Desert Storm war hero along for the ride.

It all adds up to what Publishers Weekly calls Ferrigno's "best novel in years, a splendidly readable, cinematic thriller."

Says the New York Times: "As usual with Ferrigno's novels, the Southern California atmospherics and razor-sharp dialogue are first-rate, and the villains are quirky and memorable."

To maintain his Southern California chops, Ferrigno visits several times a year. "I borrow [friends'] cars and drive around and just sort of see what's changed," Ferrigno said.

He's here this week for book signings and to appear on a panel of authors Friday at BookStar in the Beverly Connection in Los Angeles in honor of Raymond Chandler's birthday.

"I think anybody who writes character-driven crime thrillers, particularly if your work is set in L.A., owes money to Raymond Chandler--and a drink, probably," said Ferrigno, who shares Chandler's love-hate relationship with the area as expressed through private eye Philip Marlow.

"Marlow is often embittered and angry at the way things are in the L.A. of his time, which is the same [today] in terms of power and violence and the use of money and influence," Ferrigno said. "And yet there is something still exciting about the place. That's what Marlow loves. And that's what I love. It's beautiful and dangerous and fast-paced and more cutting-edge than New York or any place on the planet.

"It's not a melting pot; it's more of a boiling pot. For a writer, that's exactly where you want to be."

Ferrigno, who was born in Miami and grew up in Fort Lauderdale, earned a degree in philosophy from Florida Atlantic University. After earning an MFA in the fiction program at Bowling Green University in Ohio in 1971, he lived in Redondo Beach, then moved to Seattle, where he spent five years playing poker for a living. (Poker Digest recently profiled Ferrigno, who still makes trips to Las Vegas.)

In 1979, after writing briefly for an alternative newspaper, Ferrigno co-founded and served as editor of the Rocket, a monthly rock magazine in Seattle. He left the Rocket in 1982 to work as a newspaper reporter in Orange County.

Ferrigno began writing his first novel in his spare time, rising at 4 in the morning before going to work and returning to his computer at the end of the day. After 18 months of existing on about four hours of sleep a night--and with his marriage threatened by his long hours--his wife urged him to quit his newspaper job and devote full time to finishing his novel.

The gamble paid off: Within four months, William Morrow & Co./Avon bought his still-incomplete manuscript for an $150,000 advance. (He also earned another $200,000 on foreign rights.)

Part of Ferrigno's fun while writing his novels is depicting the quirky lifestyles and colorful characters that make Southern California what it is.

In "Heartbreaker," there's an immigration attorney who has transformed his backyard into a miniature golf course honoring cheesy horror movies.

While working in Santa Ana, Ferrigno said, he'd go for walks in neighborhoods where he'd see front yards decorated with religious-themed folk art: dozens of statues of Our Lady of Guadalupe, for example, integrated with mosaics.

"I just thought that was the coolest thing imaginable, so I took it one step further through my mental blender and transformed [the religious theme] into classic horror movies, which I like," he said.

"People are free to express their creativity because they're encouraged by the fact that Southern California is a work in progress. I see it in the microcosm of peoples' yards and what people do with their cars, the creativity they exhibit. Their personal space is infinitely changeable.

"I find that wonderful. That's fertile ground for a writer because all we do is change things around to see it in a new perspective."

* Ferrigno will appear on the Raymond Chandler panel at 7 p.m. Friday at BookStar in the Beverly Connection, 100 N. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles. He'll sign copies of his book at 1 p.m. Sunday at Book Carnival, 348 S. Tustin Ave., Orange.

* Dennis McLellan can be reached via e-mail at dennis.mclellan@latimes.com.

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