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Book Review

Flawed Hero Plays Psychological Games in 'Flinch'

November 13, 2001|MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

FLINCH

A Novel

By Robert Ferrigno

Pantheon

$24, 368 pages

*

In Robert Ferrigno's 1990 debut, "The Horse Latitudes"--which showed that noir could come in the coolest and most garish Southern California colors--the Newport Beach homicide detective who falls for the hero is named Jane Holt. In Ferrigno's sixth novel, "Flinch," the Orange County sheriff's detective who falls for the hero is named ... Jane Holt.

A coincidence? Unlikely. We hear too many other echoes of the earlier book: Internet stock trading, concussion grenades, bodybuilding, an avuncular older cop who imparts life lessons. Ferrigno, who has moved to Seattle but still sets his stories amid the glitter and sleaze of our Southland, must be trying to remind us that he hasn't lost the touch that made "The Horse Latitudes" a bestseller.

Certainly the conflict at the heart of both novels is the same. The hero is flawed, but his flaws are what make him human. Danny DiMedici in "The Horse Latitudes" is a reformed drug dealer who can't stop loving the woman who lured him into the deadly trade. Jimmy Gage in "Flinch" is expelled from high school for beating up fellow students who planned to rape a girl. Years later, his outrage over the murder of an ex-junkie who tried to protect his family from a rapacious dealer leads Jimmy into an ill-advised attempt at vigilante justice.

The bad guys, in contrast, are flawless, in control of their outward images as only sociopaths can be. Danny's ex-wife, Lauren, has everything going for her except a conscience. Jimmy's brother, Jonathan, is a millionaire plastic surgeon. He has engaged--and mostly won--in psychological warfare with Jimmy since they were kids, playing a game called "flinch" in which one boy held still while the other slashed the air near him with a knife or cleaver. The penalty for flinching: an actual cut.

Jimmy, who barely makes a living as a magazine journalist, gets a threatening letter from a self-proclaimed serial killer, the Eggman, after writing a review decrying glamorous movie portrayals of serial killers. In real life, Jimmy said, they were "pimply losers." The Eggman has claimed six victims, but the police, aware of Jimmy's checkered past, suspect a hoax and drop the case.

Jimmy takes no chances. He goes into hiding for a year--and not just because of the Eggman. The vigilante raid he and a 19-year-old documentary filmmaker named Rollo carried out against the drug dealer, Macklen, went wrong in more ways than one. Jimmy had a chance to kill Macklen but couldn't. Macklen didn't recognize Jimmy, but Rollo stole some computer chips whose sale Macklen, paralyzed from the waist down in the raid, can trace.

Jimmy's disappearance angers his golf-pro girlfriend, Olivia, whom Jonathan, upping the ante in their sibling rivalry, promptly marries. When Jimmy returns, he finds photos of the Eggman's victims in his brother's pool house. He has to decide whether this is just another psychological game or evidence that Jonathan is something more than a gamesman--and Det. Holt, reopening the Eggman case, has to decide which brother to believe.

*

"Flinch," like Jimmy, isn't flawless. Jonathan is a little too creepy to be so universally admired. He can't match the perverse allure of his predecessor, Lauren. But Ferrigno's prose is as good as ever, his craftsmanship even better, and he retains his fascination with California subcultures: Chechen and Vietnamese gangsters, porn, pro wrestling, an art gallery that deals in "splatter shots" of crimes and accidents, spas in which the colors of the rooms soothe the nervous and stimulate the depressed.

Then there's heart, the quality that drew us to Ferrigno in the beginning, that made "The Horse Latitudes" more than just another smart, hip thriller.

In "Flinch," it's expressed by Jimmy's reluctance to suspect his brother, by the eulogy he delivers at the funeral of the slain junkie and by the dying words of a simple-minded wrestler Jimmy had long promised to interview. Crushed by Macklen's giant bodyguard, the wrestler implores Jimmy to pass on this advice to the kids who have been his fans: "Listen to your mom and dad." It's the color that, by contrast, makes noir as dark as it should be.

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