Ferrigno's smoldering The Horse Latitudes was one of the most striking thriller debuts of 1990. His second novel--a splintery tale of murder among California powerbrokers--isn't nearly as good. The author still has a knack, however, for dreaming up robust characters. Quinn--no last name--is a nicely nuanced hero, a reporter for the ``snide, trendy monthly'' SLAP who, despite his aversion to violence, gets tangled up, along with his pretty photographer/sidekick Jen, in a homicidal coverup. But even before the first killing, the plotline veers erratically as Ferrigno devotes pages to Quinn and Jen's covering of a rally of iron- pumping Christians: It's a lively chapter, but one having nothing to do with the rest of the story. This sort of incident-packing plotting--though never again so blatant--marks the narrative as Quinn and Jen butt up against two vigorous villains: sly, seductive Sissy Mizell, a sort of white Oprah, hostess of Straight Talk with Sissy!; and Roy Liston, a hulking ex-pro-footballer who adores Sissy so much that he'll kill to retrieve the mysterious photographs that Sissy's assistant is blackmailing her with. An old pal of Quinn's, a fence of stolen goods, happens upon the murder- -and after the fence is killed in turn by Liston (in a scene of unusual poignancy), Quinn investigates, tracing a crooked trail that leads to the photos and their damning implications for Sissy and her husband, a gubernatorial hopeful. And always one step behind is the strangely sympathetic Liston, a mad yet faithful dog who only wants to do right by his mistress--right up to the double- surprise climax. Lots of action but not much suspense, and Ferrigno's depiction of venal upper-crust California is nothing new; it's mostly when he writes of lowlifes that his words spring to vitality. All in all, then, despite patches of hot prose: an oddly enervated thriller.