''She put her hands on her hips. There was plenty of room. She was an iron- haired grandmother from Düsseldorf, solid and thick and heavy as blood sausage.'' This is the native language laconic, sardonic, sharp as a sausage fork of Raymond Chandler Territory, a province of southern California that Robert Ferrigno strolls through in his first novel. The hero of The Horse Latitudes, Danny DiMedici, is a retired young drug merchant, not a detective, but he turns into one when the police find his ex-wife's elegant ''Moorish Modern'' beach house, recently featured in Architectural Digest, redecorated ; with a fresh coat of blood. The blood belonged to a wayward scientist named Tohlson, whose drained and mutilated body is discovered in a nearby field. Danny, cast by the cops in the Hitchcockian role of jealous ex-husband/prime suspect, sets out in search of his vanished ex-wife, Lauren, a beautiful, hard-edged, thrill-seeking psychologist whom he still devotedly loves for reasons that never become clear.
The villains of the piece are Chandleresque grotesques, though Ferrigno's grotesques have cellular phones. Before his grisly demise, Tohlson was the colleague of a mad scientist, Dr. Reese, who is obsessed with the secret of longevity and wants to synthesize an invulnerable superman, using spliced fetal tissue (''Dominance and subordination, that's what being a primate is all about''). As a side experiment, employing a diet of steroids, hormones, and health foods, he has turned his twin nephews, Boyd and Lloyd, into muscle-bound human robots, lethal in strength and stupidity. The twins, probably the most brutal vegetarians in all of literature, bludgeon and blunder their way through the book in search of Lauren, who as Tohlson's lover came into possession of some lucrative secrets.
Danny must conduct his search while avoiding the attentions of Steiner and Holt, two police detectives whose solid cynical integrity is straight out of central casting, except that olt is a woman and is beginning to take more than a professional interest in Danny. He enlists the not-very-helpful help of Lauren's brother, Michael, a reclusive Vietnam vet with a taste for guns and shady financial speculation; a volatile Cuban cocaine tycoon named Cubanito; and a bare-breasted bikini-contest pro called Amber. Along the way there is a fair amount of sex, with fireworks accompaniment, and several carefully orchestrated bloodbaths.
Like Chandler's irony-toting hero Marlowe, Danny makes good use of his wisecracks and, when appropriate, his fists, but there is a major difference: Danny, though apparently well into his 30s and a lapsed scholar of Mayan culture, is a boy sensitive, vulnerable, sullen, and wistful. In fact, the cops are just about the only characters in the book who don't seem to be in the throes of adolescence, whereas in a Chandler novel everyone is prematurely old and embittered. This may tell us something about the evolution of southern California culture during the past 40 years. So does another, more important difference: Chandler's sun-bleached bungalows, shabby offices, and neon-lit bars are pervaded by a sinister atmosphere, a brooding menace lurking beneath the placid palm-lined surface. Although the publisher's blurb accompanying The Horse Latitudes describes it as noir literature, Ferrigno's bizarre characters and accumulating, meticulously described mayhem fail to generate much atmosphere, sinister or otherwise. In his California, there is hardly a placid surface for a nightmare to lurk beneath; the bizarre has become routine. What saves his novel from a similar fate is its elliptical, drop-dead style: ''Michael was bigger, but Danny had the intensity, Danny had the high ground. Same old story. If Michael didn't get himself a cause, a crusade, he was going to lose forever. He wondered what one cost.'' B