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.