Reviews and Comment: The Poison Sky (2000)

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.
"Writers who come armed with praise from three of my favorite authors (Michael Connelly, Kent Anderson, and James Crumley) demand attention. The good news is that John Shannon lives up to his advance billing and deserves to find a devoted audience for his vividly intelligent, highly satisfying paperback originals. Shannon, with his hero Jack Liffey, a knight errant cruising the L.A. freeways and frequenting the less glamorous suburbs, is squarely in the lineage of Raymond Chandler, the man responsible for the most perfect description of the modern urban freelance crime solver, in the memorable essay 'The Simple Art of Murder,' published 56 years ago. He would recognize Jack Liffey's decency, stubbornness, and sense of humor. He would also find familiarity with this character's economic status. Said the creator of Philip Marlowe, 'The detective in this kind of story ... is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all.'

"Jack is actually on his second career. Identifying himself as a 'finder of missing children,' he came to this calling after losing his job in the aerospace industry. On this case, the kid he's been hired to locate (whose dad is out of work, too) is a teenager who's apparently fallen prey to a secretive religious cult. Or so his mother fears. But, as Jack rather quickly discovers, the truth regarding Jimmy Mardesich is a lot stranger than he bargained for. Meanwhile, who are the thugs with the peculiar sense of humor who've been stopping by Jack's condo and menacing both Jack and his girlfriend Marlena? They manage to be pretty scary, relying simply on such household staples as deodorant and shaving cream. And what is that toxic cloud streaming across Los Angeles, emanating from the chemical holding tank known respectfully as 'Big Bertha?'

"Don't be surprised if there's a happy ending. In the author's own words, the Mardesiches, with young Jimmy home again and attending community college, are yet 'another family saved from the brink of doom by the timely intervention of Jack Liffey, always standing at moral attention over the world. Wire Balladin, Culver City.' It is difficult to strike a balance between humor and homicide, delivering the right amount of mayhem and staying on message when it comes to the things that really count. Elmore Leonard, for one, is a genius at it. But John Shannon, a new guy on the mystery block (his earlier Liffey titles are Concrete River and Cracked Earth), is doing a fine job, and 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."