Reviews and Comment: Streets on Fire (2002)

Thomas Gaughan, Booklist, March 15 2002 [Starred Review]

"There's often a trajectory to a detective series. As the author finds his or her stride and the protagonist grows, it's an upward arc. At some point, though, that trajectory may peak and turn downward as succeeding books take on a tired sameness. Shannon's Jack Liffey series remains firmly in the ascendancy. The series began with three original paperbacks that found a limited but devoted audience; then the outstanding Orange Curtainu> (2001) appeared in hardcover, and Shannon was launched. His latest is the best yet. Once again, Liffey is searching for a missing college student--two this time, the black adopted son of a civil rights crusader and his white girlfriend. Liffey's investigation takes him on a tour of L.A.'s extremes, from the racial powder keg of South Central to Simi Valley suburbia. No one is happy to see him; not the black separatists in the city nor the white supremacists in the burbs; not the Christian right nor the Bone Losers motorcycle gang. And while he's contending with all these animosities, his significant other leaves him for another man, his clapped-out AMC concord is torched, and his Timex watch is shattered. Liffey doesn't have much left except his marrow-deep decency, doggedness, compassion, and courage. But that will be plenty for Liffey's current fans and the new ones Streets on Fireu> will surely attract. Here's hoping the trajectory of this series continues upward for years to come."

Wilda Williams, Library Journal, March 01, 2002

"The Orange Curtain, Shannon's fifth Jack Liffey novel, garnered high praise from critics and drew readers' attention to an intelligent and literate hard-boiled crime series. In his sixth outing, Liffey, a former aerospace worker who tracks missing children for a living, has been hired by Bancroft Davis, a prominent black civil rights leader of the 1960s, to find Davis' missing adopted son and his white girlfriend, who disappeared after a run-in with a skinhead motorcycle gang. While Liffey's search takes him to reactionary Simi Valley, home to some white supremacist groups, the rest of Los Angeles is caught in a wave of unrest, stirred by the brutal police attack (shades of Rodney King) on Abdullah Ibrahim, a black Muslim and the new star pitcher for the Dodgers. Unbeknownst to Liffey, his teenage daughter, Maeve, decides to play Nancy Drew (having just discovered the books) by also looking for the missing pair. Although the plot lines don't run as seamlessly as in the previous books, Shannon's latest is still full of memorable, fully rounded characters and richly detailed scenes of L.A. life at its most strange and bizarre. Strongly recommended."

Dick Adler, Chicago Tribune, May 25, 2002

"Apocalypses of all sorts--from earthquakes to toxic clouds--frame the vision of Los Angeles shown in the blunt and brilliant crime novels of John Shannon, so when his Jack Liffey notices 'dark columns of smoke rising up and then shearing off westward at several points in South Central, offerings unacceptable to the gods' quite early in this fifth book in the series, you know that fiery hell is soon to break loose. Michael Connelly's best-selling L.A. cop is named after the painter Hieronymus Bosch, but Shannon's backgrounds are straight out of Goya - savagely sardonic comments on the quirks of life. Watching a parade of African-Americans protesting police brutality, Liffey is amazed to see the marchers suddenly break step and execute a perfect pair of Zulu war kicks. 'Even here in the world of cell phones and MTV, the Zulu strut carried a kind of bizarre menace, as if thrusting onlookers into a dimension where ordinary defenses might not work.'

"Liffey, who specializes in finding missing children, knows from the start that the pair of lost young people he has been hired to trace this time are almost certainly dead: the black boy and his white girlfriend have disappeared after a run-in with a racist motorcycle gang called the Bone Losers - so far down on the mental food chain that they can't even spell their chosen name right. But the boy is the adopted, much-loved son of a famous activist couple in South Central, and his detective friend Ivan Monk (on loan from Gary Phillips's excellent series) recommends Liffey for the job.

"As it turns out, the search is anything but straightforward, especially when another adopted child - heartbreakingly lonely and articulate - points out to Jack that the missing white girl might be the key. Shannon steers his detective through minefields of Christian white supremacists and black nationalists with a great deal of angst but also a surprising amount of wry humor. 'He didn't think he had ever before gotten himself into a situation quite as ludicrous as this: a white man in old VW with Rustoleum red fenders parked in the heart of a full-bore riot in a black area to defend a black man from other white men who were - perhaps - sneaking up on the neighborhood. It was like zebras trying to slip into the middle of a high school prom to stage a duel.'"

Dick Lochte, Los Angeles Times, Thursday, June 19, 2002

With last Year's "The Orange Curtain," John Shannon's series featuring private detective Jack Liffey made the successful leap from paperback originals into hardcover.  That strong, socially conscious hard-boiled tale charted a number of nightmare offramps along the Southern California dream freeway.  The author's new "Streets on Fire" (Carroll & Graf/Otto Penzler, $24, 230 pages) is even more relentless in its portrait of Los Angeles as Trouble City.

As Shannon sees it, one racist cop could trigger Armageddon with a careless chokehold.  In this case, it results in the death of a popular Dodger pitcher who also happens to be a black Muslim.  Liffey observes the rapidly spreading riot mood at mean street level.  A detective pal (Gary Phillips' series sleuth Ivan Monk) has passed him a job.  A respected member of the black community needs someone to find his adopted son who has gone missing with his white Simi Valley girlfriend.

The trail takes the humane investigator into an assortment of angry camps--from white supremacist to black separatist--all gearing up for the inevitable confrontation and bristling with hatred for anyone poking into their affairs.  That would be Liffey.

If trying to stay alive and get his job done were not challenge enough, he is also being forced to come to grips with his muddled personal life.

Shannon's lean prose makes good use of local history without letting it slow down his hero's progress.  When added to his deadpan approach to L.A.'s theater of the absurd atmosphere, this should be enough to satisfy anyone seeking a strong sense of place in a novel, particularly one that also provides a powerful crime yarn with a full-blown riot payoff.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Sunday, May 18, 2002

"'Streets On Fire,' the fifth in this series, brings the problems of racism alive.  Jack's toughness and compassion, along with his literate style, make this a strong entry in the private eye genre."

Patrick Millikin, Poisoned Pen, June 20027

"The fifth in the literate, underrated Jack Liffey series, STREETS ON FIRE stands right up there with Shannon's finest work . This time out, Liffey is hired to find Amilcar Davis, the son of a prominent black 1960's civil rights campaigner, who has gone missing along with his white coed girlfriend (amusingly, it's Gary Phillips's Ivan Monk, who is too busy to take the case, who recommends Liffey for the job). Meanwhile, the choke-hold death of black muslim and Dodgers pitcher Abdullah-Ibrahim by the LAPD only fans the flames of the city's mounting racial tensions. As Los Angeles is poised on the brink of full scale race rioting, Liffey is forced to come to terms with his own latent racism, which, as the author points out, lies hidden in most of us, despite our best intentions. Shannon knows more about the social history of Los Angeles than just about anybody working in the genre, and he demonstrates once again why the crime novel is an ideal vehicle for addressing the serious issues that plague society.   Like George Pelecanos, Shannon writes  muscular, evocative novels that also have something important to say.   I can't recommend this series highly enough."

Toby Bromberg, Romantic Times Magazine, May 2002

"LA PI Jack Liffey has one hot case. Civil rights activist Ban Davis has asked him to look for his adopted son, Amilcar. Amilcar and his Caucasian girlfriend are missing from the small college they both attend. Although both families seem happy with the relationship, there are still many people who find the situation less than desirable.

"As usual, there is plenty of racial unrest in LA. The Dodgers' new pitching ace has died as a result of a police chokehold and tempers are flaring. The atmosphere is tense and Liffey's investigation pleases no one. He receives threats from all sides, supremacists, skinheads, and black separatists. In addition, concerns about his teenage daughter Maeve also occupy his mind. This may be fortunate, though, for Maeve turns out to be his only 'saving' grace.

"STREETS ON FIRE is a tough, spare story that hooks the reader immediately. The situations are tense and all too believable. Characterization is superb, with several standout portrayals."