Friday, October 09, 2009

The Book You Have to Read:
“The Cracked Earth,” by John Shannon

(Editor’s note: This is the 66th installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Picking today’s must-read crime novel is Dick Adler, a regular Rap Sheet contributor and a reviewer for both the Chicago Tribune and The Barnes & Noble Review. He previously wrote in this series about Lawrence Block’s When the Sacred Gin Mill Closes.)

In 1999, some silly bastard wrote: “The hands-down winner in the ‘Where Is the Next Raymond Chandler Coming From?’ sweepstakes--[this honor belongs] to The Cracked Earth, by John Shannon ...” That silly bastard was me, of course, and since then I’ve been joined by a ragtag bunch of reviewers in praising Shannon’s Jack Liffey books, everyone from Michael Connelly and Kent Anderson (whose own 1996 novel, Night Dogs, is another forgotten crime-fiction classic) to Mike Davis and Clancy Sigal. Even Marilyn Stasio of The New York Times has awarded Shannon an accolade or two.

The Cracked Earth was in fact the second novel in the Liffey series, after 1998’s The Concrete River. Both were original Berkley paperbacks of unusually high literary quality, which opened my eyes and caused me to arrange a breakfast interview with Shannon at the Firehouse on Main Street in Santa Monica. Out of that exchange evolved the Suicide Club (named after a cycle of Robert Louis Stevenson short stories), whose members met at the Farmers’ Market in downtown L.A. on Saturday mornings, our ranks growing to include Dick Lochte, Richard Brewer, Tom Nolan, Gary Phillips, the late and much-missed Bruce Cook (aka Bruce Alexander), and our most gorgeous member, Twist Phelan.

Shannon went on to write many more books about Liffey, a former aerospace writer who now works as a Los Angeles private detective specializing in finding lost children. He became the first author I knew of to make the big jump from paperback originals to hardcover. His most recent series installment was this year’s Palos Verdes Blue, preceded by last year’s The Devils of Bakersfield. Other Liffey titles include The Poison Sky, The Orange Curtain, City of Strangers, Terminal Island, and The Dark Streets.

But for me, The Cracked Earth is the book you really should read to get an idea of what an original character Jack Liffey is--and what a fine, mordantly funny writer Shannon is. Jack’s client in this story, referred by a friendly lawyer, is a former movie star justly famed for performances in such screen classics as A Weekend in Palm Springs, in which she lounged in a bathtub while an aging and flustered Cary Grant tried to find her a suitably revealing towel.

“He couldn’t help staring at the woman,” Shannon writes. “‘Yes, I’m Lori Bright. ... I’m shorter than you thought ... And older.’”

“Hell, I’m older than I thought,” Liffey responds, trying to keep his eyes from making an unguided tour or her still-fine form. The detective, who has an active if often bizarre sex life, is hooked: he’ll do anything Lori Bright asks of him.

What she does ask of our man Jack is that he find her daughter, Lee (“fifteen going on twenty-five”), who has disappeared from her expensive boarding school. Was she kidnapped and held for ransom? (Her father is a former ace film director, who’s now doing killer-robot movies.) Has she run off with a serial murderer, or perhaps with her boyfriend, a black football player? And when a ransom note finally appears, why does it have a British phrase in it and demand a measly $50,000?

Shannon is such a good writer, that he can even bring life to the oldest of noir clichés--the burnt-out private eye. Once Liffey had a good job writing technical manuals and a daughter, Maeve (whose part grows as the series progresses). All of that, however, has flown the coop. “His satisfactions now lay in disdain and self-control,” explains Shannon, “in his resistance to all the easy compensations that had once sustained him--cigarettes or drugs or drink or even the tough, edgy novels he had once read endlessly and that now seemed to be weirdly leaking back into his world.”

Pegasus, Shannon’s most recent publisher, has just brought out a handsome trade paperback edition of The Cracked Earth. Get it. Read it. You’ll be glad you did.

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