Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Mixing with a Master

When you’ve banged on about a fine Southern California writer like John Shannon as many times as I have, you’re bound to find yourself making the same points and/or jokes on occasion. Some editors (you know who you are) worry about such things. Get over it.

For example, I think that first time I delivered this particular line was in The Rap Sheet:
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. But was I writing for the august digital journal you’re now reading? Or was it maybe for my own humble blog, or for the Chicago Tribune or the Los Angeles Times, before they became bound at the bum?

No matter. The point is that I’ve reveled ever since in the skills--wit, action, acid humor, heartbreaking characters--on full display in Shannon’s books about Jack Liffey, the aerospace writer turned Los Angeles private detective and finder of lost children. The first few installments of that series (beginning with 1998’s The Concrete River) were Berkley paperback originals of an unusually high literary caliber, which opened my eyes and provoked me to arrange a breakfast interview with the author at the Firehouse restaurant 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 Los Angeles on Saturday mornings, our ranks eventually 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.

Now comes the 13th entry in the Liffey series, A Little Too Much, just out from that smart British publisher, Severn House. Here’s some of what Booklist’s Bill Ott had to say about the novel in a starred review:
It starts out as a simple missing-persons case--find a marquee-caliber but notoriously troublesome African-American actor who has disappeared in the middle of a shoot. But soon enough L.A. private investigator Jack Liffey is doing what he always does, trying desperately to help set the world right: “He wished he were three of four different people so he could watch over everything that needed watching over.” Maybe five or six would be good this time, as the watching over includes not only the actor, who is suffering from schizophrenia while trying to find his father, a former ’60s radical turned drug dealer who is also in desperate need of help. Also in jeopardy are Jack’s daughter, Maeve, now a UCLA student; his live-in lover, Gloria, who is undergoing a midlife crisis that has landed her in the bed of a detective friend of Jack’s; and a good-hearted Jamaican who has fallen into the employ of a drug kingpin.

“I’m not much of a detective,” says Jack at one point, “but I keep coming. That’s my virtue ...”
Since my own first piece about Liffey, I have been joined by a ragtag bunch of reviewers in praising Shannon’s work--everyone from Michael Connelly and Kent Anderson to Mike Davis and Clancy Sigal. Shannon was also the first author I knew personally who made the daunting jump from writing paperback originals to being published in hardcover. Other Liffey titles include Palos Verdes Blue, The Devils of Bakersfield, The Dark Streets, City of Strangers, and Terminal Island.

It’s hard not to become fond of somebody like Liffey, whose life has taken some substantial turns since he gave up penning technical manuals, fell into the private-eye game, and began building a new relationship with the daughter separated from him by divorce. “His satisfactions now,” writes Shannon, “lay in disdain and self-control, 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.”

But let’s hear a few words from Jack himself.

About a South American drug-runner named Jhon Orteguaza: “Jhon had been her only child, an accident of religious intoxication from dancing too near a tall, handsome Colombian wrestler.”

About his latest assignment: “It was probably the strangest job that had ever swept Jack Liffey into its orbit, and that was saying a lot. His worries had begun in earnest just after his wife (his live-in womanfriend, to be accurate, though he had begged her many times to marry him) had taken herself off for a while with a lover, his daughter had just about got herself killed by L.A. SWAT as she was so characteristically trying to rescue a crazy armed kid at UCLA, and a Colombian drug-runner’s gang had dropped out of the blue and were running wild in town, shooting, bombing, and maiming so outrageously that they pushed the sexual scandals of a TV preacher right off the news.”

About his daughter: “Maeve came back and hugged her father more reticently than he was used to. He supposed that was just part of the long slow separation of the lander module from the main spacecraft. He knew, in fact, with great pride, that she was a far better human being in many ways than he was.”

And about the Hollywood studio bosses for whom he’s working:
“You probably never heard of it, but there’s this damn book by a guy named Chester Himes called If He Hollers Let Him Go ...”

Jack Liffey let out a slow breath. It was like being told they were making Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man. No sane Hollywood studio would try it. He couldn’t help saying it. “Yeah, I know the book. What were you people thinking? It’s the angriest book about the black American experience that’s ever been written.”
Last year, when Shannon’s On the Nickel was released by Severn House, I declared that it was the finest book he had published. Well, I have to amend that. We have a new champ in A Little Too Much.

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