Reviews and Comments:
Patrick Millikin, The Poisoned Pen
"The Poison Sky is a stunner of a book and will undoubtedly bring John Shannon the attention he deserves."
Otto Penzler, Editor, Best Mysteries of the Year
"No. 1 pick, July 2000. Vividly intelligent, highly satisfying. Raymond Chandler...would recognize Jack Liffey's decency, stubbornness, and sense of humor. Jack already seems like an old friend."
Michael Harris, review written for the L.A. Times but never run.
"Hard years and tough cases have chipped away at Jack Liffey, the middle-aged hero of a Southern California mystery series that deserves to be better known. He has a steel plate in his head and a permanent limp. In "The Concrete River," hit men tossed him into a storm drain in East L.A.; in "The Cracked Earth," a house collapsed on top of him in a magnitude-7 earthquake in the Hollywood Hills. You'd think Liffey, by now, would know better than to put himself in harm's way. But no -- his destination in "The Poison Sky," after detours through Skid Row, cyberspace and various New Age cults, is a yellow gas cloud spewing from a tank of toxic waste, killing everyone who breathes it and threatening to turn Burbank into another Bhopal.
Liffey drives into the cloud to rescue the father of Jimmy Mardesich, the teen-ager he's been hired to find. Mostly, though, he does it because he's the kind of guy who tries to do the right thing, even if -- especially if -- it doesn't pay.
In the early '90s, Liffey was downsized out of his job in aerospace. Now he makes something less than a living as an unlicensed P.I. who specializes in tracking down missing children. He has lost custody of his own daughter and is often behind on his child-support payments. The only big number he sees is on the odometer of his battered AMC Concord.
Still, Liffey soldiers on, in the hard-boiled tradition of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe. He knows that his little victories are no threat to the big bad guys who hire the street muscle. And, existentialist to the core, he refuses to console himself with any belief that doing the right thing may be rewarded in a world beyond this one.
Jimmy exasperates him because the boy seems to have found just such a belief. He has run away from his moderately dysfunctional Van Nuys family to join the Theodelphian Elect, a cult with the resources to keep its members' whereabouts secret. Glowing with inner peace, Jimmy has embarked on what Jack Kerouac called the "Holy Boy Road," preaching to winos like St, Francis to the birds.
The cult at first appears to be the villain of "The Poison Sky," but Shannon, whose mainstream novels include "The Taking of the Waters," isn't a conventional mystery writer, despite his homage to the Chandler spirit. He puts his own, postmodern skew on things. Weirdness keeps flickering at the edges of the scene (like the dead bull blocking traffic on the Sepulveda Pass when Liffey first goes to interview the Mardesiches), and what we assume to be the main plot is as likely as not to be a distraction.
One of Liffey's pals is Mike Lewis, a social historian modeled on Mike Davis, who helps the detective "peel the onion" and find deeper layers of corruption. Each Liffey mystery tackles a regional issue: Latino politics and gambling interests in "Concrete River," the old Hollywood and its wired successor in "Cracked Earth," now the use of outlying areas of Los Angeles as dumping grounds for the nasty chemicals industry brews.
Finally, though, these are just good stories. Shannon has a gift for the thriller ending -- both the big picture and the details. The quake scenes in "Cracked Earth" were powerful, subtle, surreal and amusing all at once. The climax of "The Poison Sky" is even better. The scenes of gassed people fleeing the yellow cloud rival accounts of Hiroshima -- certainly the fire at the end of Nathaniel West's "Day of the Locust." No small risk to take when you don't believe the universe cares one way or another, but Liffey goes in anyway."
Copyright © John Shannon 2005. All rights reserved.