Reviews and Comment: DANGEROUS GAMES (2005)

Kier Graf, Booklist, May 1, 2005 [STARRED REVIEW]

"In the newest Jack Liffey novel (following Terminal Island), the amiable, introspective detective becomes the target of a drive-by shooting-but the bullet finds his beloved teenage daughter, Maeve. She survives, and Jack's novia, a cop named Gloria Ramirez, tries to take his mind off revenge by setting him up with a missing-kid case. The kid is Luisa Wilson, an Owens Valley Paiute Indian fleeing a bad home situation only to fall prey to even worse abusers in Los Angeles. Ethnicity and ethics always play a large role in the Liffey books, and Dangerous Games' extremely diverse cast lends richness both to Jack's attempt to mentor a troubled youth and to a reality-video story line that plays off the controversial Bumfights videos. After eight excellent Liffeys, why isn't Shannon a household name? Perhaps it's because his stories make readers examine their own attitudes and beliefs as much as the crimes on the page. But while this isn't simple escapism, Shannon has mastered the most essential element of the genre, giving us a guy we want to stand shoulder to shoulder with while we try to make sense out of a senseless universe."

Publisher's Weekly, May 16, 2005

"When an aimless shot from a car full of teens strikes Jack Liffey's 16-year-old daughter, Maeve, the professional child finder has no intention of allowing justice to follow its aimless course in Shannon's lively eighth series mystery (after 2004's Terminal Island ). Gloria Ramirez, the policewoman with whom Liffey lives in East Los Angeles's Boyle Heights, tries to distract him by arranging to have him hired to look for her hopelessly nave niece, Luisa Wilson, who's disappeared and believed headed for L.A.'s porn factories. Shannon nails bizarre characters like two shady filmmakers, Kenyon Styles and Rod Whipple, who dream of hitting the big money by filming contrived disasters. Gloria's neighborhood has its share of dangers but also its share of charms. Though seedy characters abound, Liffey prefers to look on the bright side: 'I'd like to believe everybody's just an inch from okay.... A little less this, a little more that.' The world Liffey inhabits is far from okay, but watching him struggle to make a small difference is big entertainment."

Chicago Tribune, Dick Adler, May 29

"Lots of writers specialize in mysteries and thrillers set in Southern California, but John Shannon has a unique vision of those parts of the area and its residents that nobody else seems to notice. From Terminal Island to Orange County, he has a way of catching glimpses which light up the landscape. “They approached the Mojave airfield where more than a hundred airliners had been mothballed ever since the downturn in air travel after September 11… it was a bizarre sight, like a toy store for giants,” thinks Jack Liffey, who became a private detective after an earlier aerospace layoff and now searches for missing children. Living in the East Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights with his new ladyfriend, LAPD Sgt. Gloria Ramirez, Liffey passes the old airfield on his way back from the Owens Valley, where Gloria's niece has gone missing from a Paiute rancheria - “it's what they call a reservation when it's too small to be a reservation”, Ramirez explains - and has set off to be a star of the Los Angeles porn industry. She's following in the moccasin steps of Little Deer, a Native American beauty who made the same journey several decades before and has achieved legendary status; one of the book's many heartbreaking moments is Jack's meeting with Little Deer as she is today. Liffey also has a personal crisis to resolve. His 17-year-old daughter Maeve, visiting he and Gloria, becomes the accidental victim of a drive-by shooting, brilliantly described, which results in serious injury. Jack gets part of the license plate number and a good look at the shooter, but instead of telling the cops he sets off on a private vendetta. Without giving too much away, it's safe to say that neither the niece's search for a better life nor Jack's journey of revenge turn out in any way you might expect. Shannon, who wrote a monumental non-mystery novel about the Owens Valley called “The Taking of the Waters,” is at the peak of his impressive powers here."

Boston Globe John Koch, June 30, 2005

"'Dangerous Games' is another breed of crime fiction . . . with a head on its shoulders and some purpose beyond mere titillation. It's common for authors of crime fiction to borrow techniques from moviemakers. In his episodic new novel, Shannon crosscuts between fast-moving parallel plots that sometimes graze each other as they race along but don't converge fully until the story's explosive finale. Think ''Magnolia" or ''21 Grams" in terms of multiple plot strands -- and existential ambitions.

Each of the narrative elements could probably sustain a novel by itself, and indeed ''Games" might've been a better read had the author pared down the plotting even a little.

Liffey, an introspectively moral detective who rescues imperiled kids, and Gloria Ramirez, his downbeat cop girlfriend, offer up a life-battered, against-the-odds love story. He's living with her in violence-pocked Latino East LA when his teenage daughter Maeve is wounded in a drive-by shooting in Gloria's front yard. The bearded young shooter is one of Liffey's central concerns in the book; another is the stunning, naive Native American girl Luisa Wilson, caught in the scummy currents of the LA porn trade.

The self-styled investigator is trying to find and save her from the underbelly of the entertainment industry, where Shannon's subplots blossom darkly. One involves a failed indie filmmaker and his cynical partner collaborating on a couple of ''reality" films (the sordid ''Dangerous Games" and its sequel) featuring drifters and drunks paid peanuts to be set aflame or jammed into grocery carts and maimed in downhill spills captured on digital video.

Shannon is masterful at creating these and other horrifying, often giddy, scenes of mayhem. Still, the real rewards of this novel are not in the rocketing, multiple plot lines but the quieter, gray world of wounded and searching souls caught up in the madness. Friendship, the tumult and effort of serious romantic love, the devotions of paternal affection, and giving people a chance to redeem themselves are ultimately what matter to Shannon and his appealingly thoughtful hero.

Shannon's not as facile a stylist as Crow, but his characters inhabit a real world of credible risk and need, fear and doubt, thought and action. It's a realm that's harder to write about and, in the end, of much greater interest than Crow's. Crow's is fine fare for the hammock. But discerning readers will want to sit up straighter to savor the more substantial pleasures Shannon has to offer."

The Denver Post, Tom and Enid Schantz, June 6, 2005

"Private eye Jack Liffey's girlfriend, police sergeant Gloria Martinez, wants him to help her find her lovely young niece Luisa, a naive teenager who has left her tiny Paiute reservation to seek fame in the underground adult-movie industry in the San Fernando Valley.

What she discovers instead is a sordid, cruel world in which she is abused in worse ways than she was at home, but she finds an unlikely savior in Rastafarian thug Terror Pennycooke, whose rough exterior hides a gentle and caring heart as romantic as Luisa's.

Meanwhile, a random drive-by shooting apparently intended for Jack leaves his strong-willed teenage daughter, Maeve, severely wounded. Jack goes after the young Latino gangster Thumb Estrada with vengeance in mind, only to find himself reluctantly taking the boy under his wing.

In fact, the story is filled with such unlikely and arresting alliances, which are explored in satisfying depth. It is another first-rate effort from an author who always deals sensitively and informatively with Southern California's multicultural society."

LA TIMES, Dick Lochte, July 10, 2005

John Shannon's "Dangerous Games" is that rara avis — a beautifully plotted, character-rich crime novel, both hard-edged and humorous, that is as spot-on in portraying today's Southern California as Raymond Chandler's books were in his day, while paying considerably more attention to the area's ethnic neighborhoods.

As in the author's previous seven mysteries, the main player is Jack Liffey, a hapless but honorable man of middle years who, after losing his job as an aerospace technician in the mid-1990s, shifted to a new career as bloodhound for missing youths. His quarry here is Luisa Wilson, an 18-year-old Native American fresh off the reservation in Owens Valley seeking fame and fortune as a porn movie starlet.

Liffey's sleuthing is initiated by Luisa's aunt, Los Angeles police Sgt. Gloria Ramirez, a Paiute Indian raised by a Mexican American family, and the latest in a long line of "difficult" women in the private detective's checkered romantic history. Liffey and the sergeant are sharing a cottage in East L.A. where, even before he can start his search, his visiting daughter, Maeve, is shot by a gangbanger with the unlikely name of Thumb Estrada.

Momentarily setting aside his quest for Luisa, Liffey rides out for vengeance. But as things go in Shannon's L.A. (which covers both the real and the surreal city), his fatherly fury dissipates with the discovery that Thumb isn't the homicidal hardball he'd imagined. Showing even more sides than a George Pelecanos D.C. banger, Thumb, who's hoping to take the GED exam so he can "go on up to City … [and] learn computers," doesn't know why the sight of a man and his daughter automatically caused him to fire his weapon: "He had an idea about it, almost an idea. He sensed there was a reason. The reason was like an animal waiting to be coaxed forward. But in the end there was no room for it inside him and it would not come out of the shadows."

Meanwhile, the Candide-like Luisa is being led through the exploitation movie world by a series of sleazoids. First up is Ron, an assistant director who moonlights filming homeless boozers bribed into performing seriously dangerous MTV "Jackass"-like stunts. ("Violence is the new porn," his avaricious partner declares with delight, after a particularly brutal setup.) Ron "trades" Luisa to Keith, a sociopath dope dealer from whom she is taken by a giant Rasta gangster named Trevor (nicknamed "Terror"), known for torturing his victims by spritzing ginger beer into their nasal passages.

With the exception of a sprinkle of Luisa's diary entries, in which she gives her dismal misadventures a romance novel-inspired spin, the book is presented objectively and realistically, its edgier sequences frequently brightened by dark humor and even a touch of whimsy. There's a striking sense of place throughout. Shannon grew up in San Pedro and has moved around a bit since then, evidently keeping his eyes and ears wide open. He is able to quickly get to the heart of a locale and add a typically absurdist flourish without even breathing hard: "Just before the 111 turnoff to all those rich white-belt and white-loafer cities, [Jack] passed a car that was shaped like an old dial telephone, skulking along slowly in the right lane. As he got up his courage to pull the wind-balked VW over a lane to pass, the giant receiver lifted a foot off its cradle and a sign popped up to say, 'It's for you.' "

Shannon can also note the difference between a cumbia beat and a norteño ballad, point out that "Cedars-Sinai had been founded as two much smaller clinics, both, in fact, in Boyle Heights" and that "gang wannabes, junior high delinquents and such" get stoned by sniffing Pam pan spray. And, along with the insightful characterizations and smartly evoked locations, he can move his tale logically and furiously toward a thrilling shootout in the midst of a rapidly spreading fire in the Malibu Hills.

Shannon is the real deal, a knowledgeable writer in full control of his material and talented enough to make "Dangerous Games" one of this year's most satisfying crime novels.

The Elegant Variation (webblog), guest review by Daniel J. Olivas

Because of its sheer size, Los Angeles can be many things to different people. The city boasts some of most spectacular beaches and breathtaking mountains. It is also the home of celluloid dreams: Bogart and Bacall; Capra and Coppola; the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and Oscar. And L.A. is the ultimate melting pot, a magnet for those who wish to make better lives for themselves whether fleeing a struggling economy in Detroit or political persecution in Central America. But if we pull back the curtain just a bit, we can view the darker side of Los Angeles. The coast is being held hostage by a few wealthy homeowners who wish to keep the great unwashed far from “their” hard-earned beaches. When summer comes, the dried-out mountains and hills become so much kindling for arsonists. In Hollywood’s backyard, the porn industry makes its home in the Valley amidst middle class tract homes, Ventura Boulevard businesses, churches and temples. And cracks show in the melting pot: the streets are teeming with gangs, jaded cops, and people afraid to venture into “different” neighborhoods. All of it is true: the good and the bad co-exist allowing us to feel both at home and apprehensive at the same moment. In other words, this is the perfect setting for novelist John Shannon to allow Jack Liffey, finder of lost children, to get into fresh trouble.

When we last saw Liffey, he had found the perpetrator of various crimes of vengeance arising from the racist history of Terminal Island, been dumped by his new girlfriend, survived a collapsed lung and renewed his relationship with his teenage daughter, Maeve. Liffey also fell for a police officer named Gloria Ramirez, a Native American who was raised by Latino parents who taught her to hate her own heritage. Dangerous Games begins with Liffey living in East L.A. with Ramirez; his moody daughter is delighted with Ramirez and hopes her father won’t mess this one up. But Liffey’s relationship leads inexorably to a new search for a lost child: Ramirez’s beautiful 18-year-old niece has disappeared from her tiny reservation in the Owens Valley leaving enough clues to make everyone suspect that she’s been swallowed up by L.A.’s porn scene. Liffey feels up to the task.

If it were left at that, our hero would have more than enough to occupy him. But during one clear day while Liffey waters his girlfriend’s lawn and Maeve lounges alongside chatting with her father, a gangbanger loses control and shoots indiscriminately in Liffey’s direction leaving Maeve severely wounded. As Maeve recuperates, Liffey adds a new mission to his list: revenge. His subsequent confrontation of the perpetrator and eventual solution is one of the most surprising and fulfilling aspects of the narrative. But there is still a lost child to find. And this is where things get ugly as we’re thrown into the world of phone sex, porn films, dangerous reality videos, AIDS and very violent men who truly believe that women are meant to be controlled and used in any way imaginable.

Throughout, we’re treated to Shannon’s smart dialogue, complex characters and a thrill ride of action. The denouement takes place in the Malibu Hills, set ablaze by reality “filmmakers” as their ultimate get-rich-quick venture. As Liffey and others try to outrun the flames, Liffey muses on all the failures in his life and wonders about the meaning of it all. There are wonderful things in life to be certain: the love of both his girlfriend and his resilient, brilliant daughter. But all the mistakes are there too: failed relationships, a battle with alcohol, physical scars too many to count. In Shannon’s sure hands, we see the world through the eyes of a man who struggles to reconcile life’s joy and pain shaped in large part by Los Angeles itself. Shannon offers more questions than answers. But that’s okay. Finely-crafted novels do that. And this is certainly one of Shannon’s best.

I Love a Mystery, Maddy Van Hertbruggen June, 2005

It's always nice to see a favorite character embark on a relationship that shows a lot of promise for a good future. After a series of failed attempts on that front in earlier books, Jack Liffey has found a woman with whom he'd like to share his life. Gloria Ramirez is a police sergeant in Los Angeles . Unfortunately, she has a lot of issues of her own and tends to back down from the relationship periodically. Although they are living together, there's not a sense of security, based on Gloria's actions.

In his career as a private investigator, Jack has specialized in finding missing children. He is definitely the man for the job when Gloria's 18-year-old niece, Luisa, disappears. Gloria is concerned that Luisa may end up in the porn industry in LA, which is something she has threatened to do in the past. Gloria's instincts are dead on. Luisa begins by becoming a phone sex operator and then moves on to the visual side of the industry. Fortunately for her, she does have some protectors so she is not exposed to the worst that industry has to offer. Although most of these men are lowlifes themselves, they do seem mostly honorable when it comes to Luisa; surprisingly so in the case of Trevor "Terror" Pennycooke, with whom Jack has had bad dealings in the past.

Luisa faces a variety of dangerous situations based on the kinds of people that she meets as she pursues her new "career." Since she has been abused in the past, she doesn't always recognize when a man is a predator. Surprisingly, Terror is her staunchest defender. 

A secondary plot thread deals with Jack's teenaged daughter, Maeve, who lives with Jack and Gloria. She is badly injured in a drive-by shooting and has to wear a colostomy bag. She's an incredible character who deals with her situation with grace and wit. Jack, and later Maeve, find the shooter and things turn out surprisingly for all of them.

I was slow to become involved in the book. Once I did, however, I found DANGEROUS GAMES to be an excellent read. The resolution is action packed, and the characters come alive through their dialogue. The book comes to a thrilling climax in a luxury home in the Malibu Hills. There is a raging firestorm and Jack, Luisa and Terror are in a race for their lives.

I liked how the situation between Gloria and Jack played out, and I found the book really came alive when Jack's daughter was on the page. For Jack Liffey, there are no easy answers. His struggles to live and love are very ably documented by Shannon . The biggest question I have is why Shannon is not more widely known, as this series is very well done.

Books For A Buck, May 2005

It started out as just another run-away investigation. A pretty Paiute girl, sick of her life on the reservation, heads to Hollywood hoping to make it rich in the sex trade. Private detective Jack Liffey won't make her go home to the abuse she faced there, but he does want to talk to her, make sure she's following her own plans.

The investigation is only one of Jack's problems. His daughter is shot in a drive-by shooting, his girlfriend police detective Gloria Ramirez is having problems with their relationship and Jack can't seem to get away with his impossible wish to save everyone, even if they don't want to be saved.

Author John Shannon writes a moving tale that goes far beyond a simple mystery. Jack Liffey is a perfect everyman, but also a man who maintains his hope no matter what. The Los Angeles setting comes to life, whether Jack is patrolling the lowest sewers of the porn business or visiting the homes of the elite in Malibu or nearby Rancho Mirage. Fans of Jack Liffey will want to grab DANGEROUS GAME fast. If you're new to John Shannon, you're in for a treat