Published by Pantheon Books
336 pages, 2003
Reviewed by J. Kingston Pierce
Whether by Elmore Leonard (Get Shorty) or Stuart M. Kaminsky (To Catch a Spy), Robert B. Parker (A Savage Place), Terence Faherty (Kill Me Again) or Ellery Queen (The Devil to Pay), you'd think that the Hollywood crime novel would have been done to death by now. After all, how many times can authors go back to the familiar well of avaricious movie makers, art-whoring scriptwriters and starlets with all their depth in their cleavage before readers grow tired of this milieu? The answer, apparently, is forever. Or at least as long as folks like Robert Ferrigno continue to find fresh ways of portraying (or parodying) America's foremost convergence zone of greed and glamour.
The author lets us know right off the bat that we're in for a cock-eyed ride in his seventh novel, Scavenger Hunt, when he sends tabloid reporter Jimmy Gage, along with his hot-goods-peddling buddy Rollo and a pair of aspiring actress twins, to pose nude in front of one of Southern California's most recognizable landmarks -- part of a scavenger hunt sponsored by Gage's high-living boss:
"God, I hate blondes," said Tamra Monelli. "What's the big whoop about pink nipples, anyway?"
And this idiosyncratic, full-bodied yarn becomes no less outré as it matures. Its central plot stems from an early, fortuitous encounter between Gage, a contributor to Los Angeles' SLAP magazine ("a smash-mouth monthly with a no-corrections, no-apologies editorial policy"), and Garrett Walsh, a gifted but egotistical film director who did seven years in the slammer for fatally beating 15-year-old actress-aspirant Heather Grimm with one of his two coveted Oscars. Taking a shine to the reporter, Walsh offers him what he describes as "a gift, a page-one scoop: a new screenplay I'm working on, my best one yet. The story of a man on top of the world, a man who makes a mistake and falls right through the earth. It's the oldest story there is, but it's got some new angles. Some twists." Called Fall Guy, this movie is of course based on Walsh's belief that he was set up for Grimm's slaying -- possibly by the husband of an unnamed "good wife" with whom he'd been having an affair at the time. "I got it all down here: names, places, dates," Walsh explains. "I just don't have the third act finished yet, the part where the hero nails the husband and wins the girl back." The director wants Gage to publicize his efforts before anyone can stop him. But the man from SLAP is skeptical. At least until Walsh is found dead, face down in a koi pond, and the scribbled evidence of his framing -- what he'd called "the most dangerous screenplay in Hollywood" -- goes missing.
Jimmy Gage is the inevitable result of serious journalism succumbing to the modern marketplace, a writer who -- without any evident cringing -- can switch-hit from reporting on crime or corruption to penning celebrity profiles. When we first met him, in Flinch (one of January's favorite books of 2001), he had just returned to La-La Land from a self-imposed exile in Europe, where he'd gone to ride out the turbid wake of a serial-killer investigation that had damaged his credibility. He's since regained some of his rising-star luster, but lost none of the trouble-seeking, edge-treading attitude that helped get him into hot water in the first place. Ferrigno describes bad boy Gage in Scavenger Hunt with what sounds like envy: "He had no respect for authority, no regard for holographic ID badges, formal invitations, or signing in at the front desk. He cheated on his taxes, trespassed when he felt like it, and broke the speed every time he got behind the wheel. But he never stiffed a waitress and never told a woman he loved her if he didn't -- his internal compass always pointed to true north." Similarly admiring is this newsie's girlfriend, well-bred, WASPish cop Jane Holt. "[Gage] wasn't police," she muses, "but he had the same heightened survival instincts and street smarts as a good cop. Or a good crook. She sometimes thought his journalism was just an excuse to work the middle ground between right and wrong, an opportunity to keep company with the dregs and the desperadoes, the high and the mighty too."
All of those types and more figure into this novel, as Gage -- doubting the conclusion that Walsh died accidentally from drug and alcohol intoxication -- digs back into the circumstances of Heather Grimm's slaying. He's particularly intrigued by the existence of that mysterious "good wife" Walsh mentioned, but refused to identify, a woman who'd supposedly sent the director a letter in prison, only a month before his release, saying that her husband had known about their affair all along -- and that he's kept tapes of their lovemaking to prove it. Could that jealous hubby really have planned to wrongly implicate Walsh in Ms. Grimm's grim demise? And, if so, was the teenager complicit in the scheme, a not-so-virtuous Lolita unaware that this first starring role would also be her last? Shaking off the cold shoulder given him by LAPD Detective Helen Katz, the tough-as-males officer charged with closing the book on Walsh's death, Gage persists in his investigation, making a merry go-round among SoCal quirksters, including an aging action star with whom he swaps body blows; a jittery, small-time producer of porn flicks; a backlot basketball star infuriated by Gage's depiction of him in print; and a most obliging ex-cop with a doughnut jones, Leonard Brimley. Hollywood itself may have "all the personality of a paper cup," as Raymond Chandler once quipped, but it's got kinky and kooky personalities up the ying-yang.
Ferrigno, who put in several years as a features reporter for an Orange County, California, newspaper before relocating to the Seattle area in 1991, depicts the frenetic, body-obsessed culture of the L.A. area with sardonic humor. Consider, for instance, this description of a vegetarian eatery:
The Healthy Life Café smelled of lentil soup and carrot juice and roasted garlic. Men in short-sleeved shirts were hunched over the small wooden tables, gobbling down soy burgers while they read the sports pages. An emaciated woman with bulging eyes and bright red lips sipped at a green milkshake -- she reminded Jimmy of a dragonfly. Handmade banners on the walls proclaimed FREE TIBET! and MEAT IS MURDER and DEATH BEGINS IN THE COLON! He wondered why vegetarians always used so many exclamation points.
The author interprets Southern California as a darkly mesmerizing fantasyland, suggestive of the Coen Brothers' vision rather than Walt Disney's. Here, wanton nymphets ask utter and complete strangers to help them peel wax treatments from their aerobicized thighs, no-neck villains commit cold-blooded homicide between adult-education classes, pistols are the jewelry of choice, and it's not so extraordinary to wander onto the set of a poolside, multi-player porno shoot, as Gage does in Scavenger Hunt. ("The actors straddled each other, looking at the director for instructions, their feet slipping on the wet sides of the pool. It looked like a drunken game of Twister.")
This latest novel has more to commend it, though, than bizarre backdrops and players, all rendered in a sophisticated, but less-restrained prose style than we've come to expect from Ferrigno. Scavenger Hunt may mark another evolutionary step in storytelling for this author, who's been turning critics' heads ever since The Horse Latitudes was acclaimed by Time magazine as "the most memorable fiction debut of the season" in the spring of 1990. If Flinch had the distinction of being the first Ferrigno work to boast a male protagonist (Gage) whose depth and intrigue rivaled that of his book's singular bad guys, this sequel breaks the novelist's patterns further by not depending for part of its narrative drive on tension (sexual or otherwise) between a flawed, taciturn male lead and a captivating but usually unattainable woman. Instead, Ferrigno's new tale of ambition and guilt is driven by what for him is particularly dense, circuitous plotting, buttressed by clever dialogue. Even though he semaphores some aspects of his resolution well in advance, Ferrigno withholds enough information to still surprise the reader in his last 40 pages. He also does a fine job of escalating his story's menace, patiently exposing the psychosis of his killer.
This isn't to say that Scavenger Hunt is without weaknesses. There are several throwaway episodes here (including one in which Gage and Jane Holt try to nab a "lover's lane" rapist). And Detective Katz, after attaining some complexity at the scene of a drive-by shooting, quickly loses her attraction, lapsing into caricature as a belligerently asexual cop with compensating appetites for food and drink. Yet these faults don't detract seriously from what in the end is smartly executed, often witty and brilliantly sordid escapist fare that you won't be embarrassed to read in public.
Hooray for Hollywood! | January 2003
J. Kingston Pierce is the crime fiction editor of January Magazine.