by Robert Ferrigno
Published by Pantheon Books
307 pages, 1999
Buy it online
Having interviewed Robert Ferrigno at several stages during his 1990s evolution as a writer of edgy, noirish thrillers, what strikes me as most remarkable is that he has remained essentially modest. Even with five books to his credit. Even now that much-better-known American crime novelists such as Michael Connelly and James Ellroy will give him gushy blurbs for his book jackets. Even now that legendary New York editor Sonny Mehta is handling his work.
Other writers with far less talent and considerably less sales potential than Ferrigno claims have been known to turn egotistical after only their second or third books. But not this 52-year-old Seattle-area resident. Ferrigno has seemingly avoided the curse of arrogance, remained willing to cite his limitations, to joke about his penchant for last-minute rewriting, to admit that he can be hurt by a negative review of his work. If you want an inkling of Ferrigno's unpretentiousness, just attend one of his promotional appearances: The author always looks a bit amazed that people would come to hear him read, or ask him to sign books. However, his humbleness may ring through most clearly when he talks about what he has learned working with Mehta on his new novel, Heartbreaker.
"It was amazing," says Ferrigno (pronounced fur-REEN-yo). "I'd done four novels, for two different publishers before signing to do Heartbreaker [for Pantheon Books]. I thought I knew what a bestselling thriller was supposed to be like, what sorts of things you needed to do with plot and characters to make it work. So the first version of this new book had a bunch of things in it -- action scenes -- that were meant to advance the plot. And I remember having this conversation with Sonny, during which I was explaining all of this -- and he looked at me like I was insane. He said, `I have no preconceived notions of the book you're supposed to write.' He said, 'Don't do anything that you think you're supposed to do, just write what you want to write.'
"I was suddenly giddy," the author recalls. "I had tears in my eyes 'cuz I was so happy. I was already rewriting parts of the book in my head. A lot of things I had considered doing, I'd censored out, because I thought they would distract from my basic plot. And now I realized that I could put them back in. So I told Sonny that I already knew what I was going to do, and that I'd get the manuscript back to him in five weeks." He laughs. "Well, it was more like five months, and I worked my ass off. But what a time! I felt so liberated. I couldn't wait to get to work writing every morning, just to see how my story was going to unfold."
How Heartbreaker unfolds is in the smart, cinematic fashion to which Ferrigno fans have become accustomed. The story revolves around an ex-undercover cop named Valentine Duran, who flees the drugs-and-thugs culture of Miami after a white-trash narcotics kingpin named Junior Mayfield has Val's friend and partner murdered -- while Val is forced to watch through a telescope. After first killing the guys who capped his buddy, Val picks up his cigar-chewing grandmother and hightails it across the country to Los Angeles. He goes to work as a technical advisor on "ultra-low budget action movies," yet can't resist taunting Junior with his freedom, appearing as a contestant on Jeopardy, Junior's favorite TV show. ("Junior taped every episode of Jeopardy," Ferrigno writes. "Half the dope dealers in south Florida were glued to the tube every afternoon, making bets, yelling at the contestants. Junior once shot out a forty-seven-inch Mitsubishi over a missed answer.")
Val figures he's safe in Southern California. At least until he falls fast and hard for Kyle Abbott, a seductive, dark-haired marine biologist from a wealthy but terminally dysfunctional Laguna Beach family. As their romance develops, so does a scheme by Kyle's wastrelish stepbrother, Charles ("Kilo") Abbott III, to do away with his stepmother, the person who stands in the way of Kilo inheriting his father's money. Assisting Kilo in this crime are two of Ferrigno's signature baddies: a remorseless redhead, Jackie Hendricks, and her deranged Gulf War-veteran cohort Dekker. Val soon finds himself caught up in the Abbott clan's deaths and duplicities, while simultaneously endeavoring to steer clear of Junior, who, accompanied by an overdressing Colombian sociopath, has decided to pay a vengeful call on Val in LA.
Ferrigno, who grew up in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and spent part of his career writing feature columns for a newspaper in Orange County, California, brings just the right verisimilitude to both settings in Heartbreaker. The ambition and sexual release of SoCal. The "sultry indolence" of the Sunshine State. There's a particularly interesting scene about halfway through the book (and based on one of Ferrigno's own childhood memories), in which Val recollects growing up with mosquitoes:
Florida state disease-control trucks had regularly rumbled through his neighborhood laying down thick white clouds of DDT when the skeeters got too bad -- he and Steffano had ridden their bicycles behind the truck, playing in the fog, pretending they were fighter pilots lost in the clouds.
His taste for dialogue that combines humor with menace suggests Ferrigno's debt to novelist Elmore Leonard. But some of his cultural insights and turns of phrase demonstrate more Ferrigno's maturity and increasing self-confidence as an author than they do outside influences. For example, he describes a rumpled sheriff's detective as having "the cop walk, a slow, fatigued swagger, knowing he had the force of authority behind him but too overworked to flaunt himself. A cop could walk into a brick wall and be surprised that the wall didn't step aside." Elsewhere, Ferrigno adds to our image of femme fatales with this memorable description of Jackie Hendricks: "There was a radiant wickedness to her, a cruelty as consuming and impersonal as a forest fire -- Kilo saw flames in her eyes and longed to throw himself in."
James Ellroy calls Heartbreaker "a dark, comic tour-de-force." It is unquestionably among Ferrigno's most carefully crafted works, its pace steadily and engagingly increasing, its scenes blessedly short of the car chases and casual testosteronic violence that have periodically propelled the pace of his other books at the cost of their credibility. It could be argued that his last novel, Dead Silent (1996), was more consistently noirish in tone and style, but Heartbreaker's array of subplots and his tense conclusion ultimately make this the more riveting read. Although Val Duran is, like most male protagonists in Ferrigno novels, a less-fully-realized creation than any of the villains he faces, the fact that Val operates under some moral ambiguity (he does, after all, slay his cop-partner's killers) makes him an unusually believable figure.
Ferrigno calls Heartbreaker "my favorite book. By far." But, curiously, it marks something of a sacrifice for the author. After having his first novel, The Horse Latitudes (1990), likened to the works of Raymond Chandler, and after being paid what he calls "huge advances" to write two more novels for G.P. Putnam's Sons -- Dead Man's Dance (1995) and Dead Silent -- neither of which was the bestseller that Putnam had craved, Ferrigno admits, "I was a harder sell." In order to make the Heartbreaker deal with editor Mehta, Ferrigno had to agree to take less money than he'd received for his previous work (though he won't say precisely how much less). However, he believes that what he's learned from Mehta will make his books better and more saleable in the long run. "I thought I had had good editors before, and I have -- I've been really lucky," Ferrigno explains. "But the ultimate editor is kind of like a virus, who inserts himself into the DNA of the book and becomes part of the writer's consciousness. That's what Sonny did."
This process lengthened Ferrigno's writing schedule. "I usually work on books for a year and a half. But it took over two years to do Heartbreaker," he says. That period included an initial encounter in Manhattan with Mehta (much of their time together spent walking around the city, going to the editor's book-lined condominium, "and in the course of things," Ferrigno notes, "occasionally talking about what I wanted to do with my book"); a flurry of follow-up e-mails, in which specific points of the story were discussed; and, as is common with Ferrigno, a couple of rewriting stages after the first bound galley of Heartbreaker was printed for potential reviewers. "I'm a nut when it comes to rewriting," he admits. "I want to get the layers and nuances of the story just right." In the past, this perfectionism has forced Ferrigno to actually pay his publishers thousands of dollars out of his own pocket to reset sections of his books; but, he adds, "Sonny's attitude was, `There are no time constraints whatsoever. It's your book, do with it what you will.'" Ferrigno took Mehta up on this opportunity, making some rather significant 11th-hour alterations.
Reviews of Heartbreaker have been predominately favorable. (The Chicago Tribune called it "recklessly exciting, wildly funny, and highly original." Salon -- intending to be complimentary -- dubbed Heartbreaker "quintessentially summer fare.") And whether it's due to Mehta's imprimatur on the new novel or a combination of that and Ferrigno's respectable track record thus far, foreign sales for this book are more impressive than they were for his previous titles. "I finally broke into the Japanese market," the author enthuses, "and the Italians have invited me over in the fall. I've never had a foreign tour, so that's exciting."
Might this enthusiasm lead to more serious attention from Hollywood? All but one of Ferrigno's novels (The Cheshire Moon, 1993) has been sold to filmmakers -- some, like Horse Latitudes, more than once. Yet, none has made it past the early screenplay stage. After getting his hopes up in the past, Ferrigno says he has stopped guessing at the future of his work on celluloid. "I talked with my agent after 20th Century Fox bought Heartbreaker and then decided not to film it," he remembers. "She told me that they thought the story was too much like Elmore Leonard's Out of Sight, which was another character-driven thriller. And I said, `That was made into an incredibly good film.' `Yeah,' she said, `but it only made like $11 million.' She told me that what Hollywood wants now are more movies like The Waterboy, with Adam Sandler, that can be cheaply produced and make $100 million. If that's the ideal, forget it."
Ferrigno sounds content to concentrate on his writing. He has another book cooking (the second in his two-novel deal with Pantheon). This one, he says, is "a story about two brothers. One's a screw-up and the other is a success. And they're both in love with the same woman. My guy's the screw-up, a film reviewer whose reviews get him in trouble. I'm sure that I'll be as surprised as anybody else to see how it all turns out. I always tell people that I write the books I want to read. And I'm just lucky, because I get to read them first." | July 1999
J. KINGSTON PIERCE is the crime fiction editor of January Magazine.