Since his crime classic debut, "The Horse Latitudes," Robert Ferrigno has mostly lived up to his reputation as the West Coast Elmore Leonard - his novels feature great dialogue and darkly humorous sociopathic criminals, with just a little more noir attitude and a lot more West Coast cool.
Like Leonard, his plots don't always hold up. But when he puts it all together, however, no one is better.
In "The Wake-Up," he does.
Usually, Ferrigno's protagonists are underachieving guys cruising through life who blunder their way into a bad situation with dangerous people. They then are forced to rise to the occasion to save themselves, both body and soul
Here, the focus is on one of the dangerous people.
In fact, Frank Thorpe is the kind of guy who could dispose of Ferrigno's usual bad guys without breaking a sweat. Thorpe is a team leader for a covert counterterrorist unit that operates way off the radar. He is smart, effective and deadly.
Frank, however, is humiliatingly played by an agent he knows only as The Engineer, and it leads not only to a bungled operation but also to his partner's death. Frank's bosses kick him to the curb in disgrace, but when your partner is killed, you have to do something about it - especially if you were in love with her.
Restless and irritable while he awaits his move against The Engineer, Frank sees a well-dressed "hard charger" knock a young peddler over at the airport and decides to give him a "wake up" to the consequences of his actions by temporarily screwing up the guy's life - because he can, and he's good at it.
Soon, though, Frank finds himself dealing with the nastiest brother-and-sister team of drug-dealing beach bums this side of a James W. Hall novel. Their hired muscle includes a veteran Latino who once worked for the local drug kingpin and a super-strong, cold-eyed Romanian who was subject to communist medical experiments as a child.
Frank also finds he has to worry about the consequences of his actions on the innocent people around these various thugs - something that rarely came up in his old job.
Meanwhile, The Engineer has decided not to wait for Frank to find him and has begun his own game of cat and mouse.
Everything works in this book, which showcases Ferrigno's strengths: great dialogue, dark humor, tricky plotting, and quirky but very human characters. Even those who are in life-or-death struggles with one another form relationships and deal with one another on an unsettlingly reasonable level.
On the surface Frank might seem the antithesis of the usual Ferrigno protagonist. But like the ordinary guy characters in Ferrigno's other books, Frank is spiritually and morally adrift, and much of the pleasure here is seeing him "wake up."
On the other hand, the protagonist of "Caught Stealing," Charlie Huston 's dynamic debut, is more like the usual Ferrigno suspect.
Hank Thompson was once a California golden boy: a major league baseball prospect, smart and popular. But after a career-ending injury and a car accident that killed his best friend, Hank fled 3,000 miles to New York City to attend college.
Now, he's just bumming around Manhattan's Lower East Side, working as a bartender in a seedy dive, and his only ambition is to find a cure for his sore feet.
Hank does a favor for Russ, a neighbor in his ratty tenement, by looking after his cat for a few days. The next thing he knows, he's beaten nearly to death by two Russian guys in track suits and pursued by two gangsta brothers who wear skull rings and drive a classic Caddy.
Even the cop who is supposed to be investigating the incidents seems more interested in finding what the thugs are after than in arresting them.
The discovery of a locker key in the bottom of the cat box leads to answers but no solution.
Huston 's novel is shockingly violent, and Hank spends a little too long simply running away and getting his friends killed. And unlike Frank Thorpe, the life lessons Hank learns are not exactly uplifting.
But for fans of quirky, action-packed noir, "Caught Stealing" is the auspicious debut of a writer who knows how to keep readers' pulses racing, can craft vivid settings and has an ear for sharp dialogue. This ultraviolent book may be too much for some readers to stomach, but be forewarned: No matter your sensitivities, once you pick this book up, you won't put it down.