created by john shannon


 By Art Taylor

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Since "The Concrete River" (1996), the first book in his vastly underappreciated Jack Liffey series, Los Angeles-based crime novelist John Shannon has been both blessed and dogged by comparisons to Raymond Chandler, Shannon occasionally goes down familiar mean streets and has established himself as a master of social realism, rigorously exploring various ethnic and enclave communities in Southern California.

But he is also prone to make sudden surrealistic swerves and delve more explicitly and trenchantly than his contemporaries into divisive political issues and existential quandaries: a debate on the Patriot Act, for example, in a kangaroo court rigged by rogue Homeland Security types ("The Dark Streets"); or a theological discussion amid a swirl of violence ("The Devils of Bakersfield"). Sometimes the diversions rise to Beckettian levels of absurdity and moral provocation. Far from being escapist fare, these books aim to be novels of ideas.

As "On the Nickel" opens, Liffey seems a true Beckett hero. Mute and paralyzed after injuries from a previous investigation, he uses a wheelchair, and his every attempt at speech comes out simply "Ack, ack" -- "like Daffy Duck," his daughter Maeve comments. Liffey's mind remains as sharp as ever, but his daughter's in charge these days, and when a phone call comes from Liffey's best friend, requesting help with finding his runaway son Conor, it's Maeve who takes the case.

Inquisitive, passionate, unpredictable Maeve Liffey has been a controversial aspect of previous books (just check out some vitriolic Amazon reader reviews), but to my mind she has evolved into one of the most interesting characters in contemporary crime fiction. She's not a troubled kid, but she has endured a full range of adolescent issues, and she infuriates her father with her tendency to go Nancy Drew and with the business cards she tries to hide from him: "Liffey and Liffey, Investigations." Liffey's own card says, "I Find Missing Children," and it's often Maeve whom he most fears losing.

With her dad incapacitated, Maeve goes solo with impunity, and her quest for missing Conor takes her into the darkest part of L.A.'s Skid Row -- known locally as The Nickel -- a 50-block area hosting the largest concentration of homeless people in the United States. Conor, an aspiring musician, has found himself there as part of his own quest for real-world experiences beyond his cloistered, privileged upbringing. Though Maeve locates him quickly, their troubles have only begun, and they're soon caught in the crossfire of a heated battle between rich developers intent on gentrification and the last tenants at a decaying flophouse, a trio of old Jewish men calling themselves the Resistance.

While the action is relentless -- vandalism, kidnapping, assault, robbery, arson, murder -- the main characters are also on a spiritual journey. Canvassing Skid Row with Conor's picture in hand, Maeve likens the scene to "a whole post-apocalyptic world of people who were out on their own in the hard rain, hunting for someone they had lost or a job they desperately needed or just the big lottery ticket." Even the most terrifying of the villains here -- a knife-wielding, Nietzsche-quoting psycho -- ponders "convention and morality" and the stages of his own evolution from camel to lion and back to "the infant who's going to grow up to be the superman."

Its vitality notwithstanding, "On the Nickel" may not be the best starting point for those unfamiliar with Shannon's novels. The hero's extreme predicament might prove off-putting for first-time readers, and the rich-vs.-poor discussion seems more didactic and one-sided than Shannon's earlier explorations of what he calls "L.A.'s grand comedy." But for anyone following these adventures already, "On the Nickel" will be a solid addition to a series that consistently provokes and surprises.



Booklist, May 1, 2010

On the Nickel, , Jul 2010. 272 p. Severn House, hardcover, $28.95. (9780727869036).

Previous episodes in Shannon’s consistently engaging Jack Liffey series have moved about California, but this time the “finder of lost children” stays put—literally, at least in the beginning, as the trauma of being buried alived in a mudslide (Palos Verdes Blue, 2009) has left him without a voice and unable to use his legs (doctors feel the symptoms have a psychological basis). As in previous episodes, though, Jack’s highschool-age daughter, Maeve, steps in to help her dad (without telling him, of course). This time the case involves the disappearance of teenage boy, Conor. Maeve tracks him to a flophouse in downtown L.A.’s notorious skid row (the “Nickel”). Unfortunately, Conor picks a flophouse that is due for renovation once some curmudgeonly residents can be convinced to leave. The owner has hired two loose-cannon enforcers to handle the evictions, and Maeve and Conor wind up in the crossfire. Shannon again writes about society’s disenfranchised with great power, but he never slights human relationships in the onslaught of shocking sociological detail. A couple of plot developments on the way to setting up the final confrontation strain credulity, but the finale itself is an edge-of-the-chair corker. Another winner in an outstanding series.


The Rap Sheet, June 1, 2010, by Dick Adler

Shannon Triumphant

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned in my review of Gar Anthony Haywood’s Cemetery Road that his fellow Southern California author, John Shannon, has a new Jack Liffey detective novel due out from Britain’s Severn House. That book, On the Nickel, should arrive in stores next month--and it is one of the very best entries in a terrific series.

Without giving away too much of Shannon’s great plot, I can say that it involves the search for a runaway 16-year-old, greedy downtown developers, and the conflict between Skid Row habitués who don’t have much money and thugs who haven’t much sympathy.

As usual, Liffey’s relationship with his daughter is a thing of beauty and anxiety--even though, throughout most of this new yarn, he can communicate with her only by the means of laborious printing.

Jack Liffey pointed to WHO CALLED on his master list. “Nothing important, Dad,” Maeve said. “You gotta get over thinking I’m always up to something.” It took him a while to scribble WHEN DID THE POPE STOP WEARING A DRESS?

To explain his new novel’s title, Shannon writes: “L.A.’s Skid Row is known locally as The Nickel because its east-west axis is Fifth Street. It’s a roughly fifty-block area of warehouses, missions, and nondescript brick buildings that in the late afternoon finds itself literally in the shadow of the modern glass-and-steel eighty-story skyline on Bunker Hill half a mile west. The Nickel has the largest concentration of homeless people in the United States: between 8,000 and 11,000 souls live here, many of them scrambling nightly for charity shelters, single-room-occupancy hotels or makeshift tents, plastic lean-tos and refrigerator boxes ...”

You can discover much more about this sad quarter of Southern California’s largest city, and about Liffey and his daughter, by taking a flyer on On the Nickel.



Poisoned Pen Magazine, On-line Issue No. 6, by Patrick Millikin


Shannon, John. On the Nickel (Severn $28.95 signed). Patrick says, “I just got my clutches on a copy of Shannon’s brand new Jack Liffey novel as we were going to press (metaphorically speaking), but I’ve been looking forward to it for months. Shannon’s obscenely neglected books are among the finest ever written about Los Angeles, and this latest installment takes us down into the heart of the city – skid row. I’ll have a full report very shortly, but don’t delay on ordering your signed copy as Severn House has notoriously miniscule print runs…”


Underappreciated Books, AARP Website  

On the Nickel by John Shannon. As elsewhere in his long-running but underappreciated Jack Liffey series, John Shannon mixes hard-hitting action with sharp-edged social commentary in this tale of teens adrift on L.A.'s Skid Row. Can they be rescued in time by an aging father trying to snap out of his psychosomatic paralysis?
— Art Taylor



Copyright © John Shannon 2015. All rights reserved.