By Tom De Haven
Updated February 12, 1993 at 05:00 AM EST

Robert Ferrigno (The Horse Latitudes) doesn’t craft elegant thrillers that peak precisely where you figure they’re going to; his just keep blowing up in your face. You can’t second-guess Ferrigno or predict where he’s going. Or when he’ll get there. Or even where there is.

In Cheshire Moon, a 37-year-old journalist named Quinn (that’s all, just Quinn) has recently moved back to Southern California, ”the land of infinite renewal,” after a self-imposed exile in Texas, his punishment for having written a news story that freed a mass murderer — who promptly went out and killed more women. Now a feature writer for SLAP, ”a snide, trendy monthly,” Quinn plays it safe and steers clear of his old crime beat. He’ll interview Madonna impersonators and musclemen for Jesus but skip the biker bars and the city morgue. No more bad company, no more bad dreams. But then he gets a late-night phone call from Andy Prefontaine.

A hustler of high-tech gadgetry (”All new and in their original containers. Just don’t ask for a receipt”), Andy has just witnessed the murder of a television producer — and left his parka, with identification in the pocket, back at the scene of the crime. He’s terrified that the killer, ”a total monstro,” is now stalking him. He’s right. Before Quinn can help, Andy is kidnapped, driven to a lonely spot by the airport, and, in a moment of almost unbearable terror, forced to shoot himself in the head with a .357 Magnum. Quinn, who shares a hard-boiled code of conscience with Philip Marlowe, feels compelled to find his friend’s murderer.

The setup may not be the most original — but it’s not bad and is soon complicated by a clever MacGuffin: the search for a missing medical X ray taken more than 20 years ago. But it’s never Ferrigno’s plots that are such a kick, it’s all the set pieces that flow from them — the vigorous, colloquially barbed writing that propels them and the characters that inhabit them. And there are some real beauts here: a gallery of cops who can’t be bothered, several free-market entrepreneurs, and Hollywood operators of all stripes — including Sissy Mizell, ”the White Oprah,” a size 16 talk-show host who practices grammar in the mirror and French kissing on her hand, and whose vulnerability to blackmail is at the heart of the mystery. But with the creation of Emory Roy Liston, Ferrigno has outdone himself. Liston, with his silky blue jogging suit and his varsity haircut, is one of the great scary bad guys in American fiction. An aspirin addict and self-proclaimed ”screwup” who once played football for the Chicago Bears ”for about thirty-seven minutes” (his knee was shattered in the third quarter of his first pro game), Liston — when he isn’t out committing murder — likes nothing better than to dust his college trophies, use the speed dial on his phone to order junk from the Home Shopping Network, and take the occasional adult-education class: world history, world literature, world religion. ”Anything with ‘World’ in the title,” he says. ”I haven’t got time for the small stuff.” This is a lunatic who makes Elmore Leonard’s hit men seem models of mental health.

Loaded with some truly astonishing scenes of violence, including one that could do for showering with a friend what Psycho did for showering solo, Cheshire Moon feels to me like the debut of an ongoing series — the leads are so rich with potential, and even the supporting cast seems primed for further appearances. It’s a propulsive and endlessly surprising novel of suspense. A