Why do beach books get such a bad rap? They may not be the stuff of a steady diet, but come on, who wants to sit outside with a thermos of lemonade and an unannotated "Finnegans Wake"? So when I describe "Heartbreaker" as quintessentially summer fare, it's meant as a compliment. The first novel in nine years from Robert Ferrigno ("The Horse Latitudes") doesn't have to be high art to be worthy of the same kind of praise one annually doles out for ice-cream sundaes and fireworks.
The premise is straightforward neo-noir: Miami undercover investigator Val Duran watches helplessly as his partner and best friend is savagely executed, then hightails it to L.A. before he can become the next trophy in a coke kingpin's collection of victims. He picks up work as a technical consultant on grade-Z action flicks and embarks on a gentle courtship with his brainy, beautiful neighbor Kyle. But while he believes he's made a fresh start, Val's troubles are actually just beginning. Not only are the vengeful Junior Mayfield and his baby-faced, sadistic henchman hot on his trail, but Kyle is wasting no time in miring him in her own problems -- problems that involve greedy relatives, betrayal and cold-blooded murder.
Though Ferrigno's story and its characters are familiar to fans of the mystery genre -- contract killings, shady dames, indolent playboys -- the author manages to carve neat new grooves into a well-worn track. Val Duran may be the world's first half-Seminole gumshoe, his nemesis, Junior, the first drug lord whose primary addiction is to TV game shows. (Val brashly taunts Junior by appearing on "Jeopardy!" and scrawling his name as the final-round answer.)
It's those oddball touches that make "Heartbreaker" so much fun; Ferrigno knows how to blend old-fashioned good vs. evil and unabashedly modern pop culture. Characters signal each other while draining mochas at Starbucks; they go to karaoke bars where Silicon Valley software geeks belt out Alanis Morissette tunes. It's like Chandler filtered through "Pop-Up Video" and delivered in devilishly po-mo hard-boiled prose. Ferrigno's version of tough-guy talk is a description of a woman in navel-baring top as having "a fine button ... push it and you could start World War III."
And as "Heartbreaker" bounces from chase to chase, crime scene to crime scene, its hero, Val, is exactly the right guide for the trip. He's tough enough to garrote an attacker in a heartbeat, quirky enough to offer spirit pouches for the dead and go mango shopping with his grandma. No wonder his girlfriend is a beachcombing, taco-eating marine biologist -- Val's just the guy you'd want to hang out with on a lazy 90 degrees-in-the-shade afternoon. If they gave prizes for the author whose work is most likely to get Coppertone smears and sand shaken out at the end of the day, Robert Ferrigno would be a laureate for sure.