The Dark Streets
by John Shannon
Published by Pegasus Books
287 pages, 2007
Reviewed by Kevin Burton Smith
What does John Shannon have to do to get some love from book buyers?
Sing on American Idol?
Punch Oprah in the nose?
Start dating Paris Hilton?
He's going to have to do something, because clearly writing the finest series of detective novels currently set in Los Angeles isn't enough.
These books aren't merely good reads. That they are, undeniably. But they're also hard-edged, action-packed, character-driven thrillers that aren't afraid to entertain. And they're not afraid, either, to be smart. Even better, though, is that Shannon is not afraid to be angry. His novels should be read not just by the huffing, puffing suits-and-ties that pretend to be our leaders, but by every single American with half a clue who has ever despaired about the state of this Union.
The thumbs-up praise for The Dark Streets, the latest novel to feature Jack Liffey, technical writer turned finder of lost children and other displaced souls, has been rolling in from all the usual places: from fan sites and reader blogs to booksellers and industrial heavyweights such as The New York Times Book Review, Publishers Weekly and Booklist. As it has for the previous eight books in the Liffey series. So, inconsistency certainly isn't the reason why Shannon's work isn't better known.
That being the case, anything I could say here probably won't make much difference to the bottom line. It's probably already been said -- and said more coherently, I'll wager. The Dark Streets is already, at least as far as I'm concerned, a contender for best detective novel of the year, but at this point saying that's just another brick in the wall of critical hosannas.
Still, one more brick won't hurt. So what the hell.
Buy this book. Read it. Then go back and read all the rest of them. Because right now there's nobody -- and I mean, nobody -- in crime fiction or the broader realm of literature who writes about Los Angeles (and us) as powerfully and with such keen vision, wit and passion as Shannon does.
Right now, L.A. belongs to John Shannon.
Yeah, I know. That's a bold statement. Southern California, and Los Angeles in particular, has always been ground zero for fictional private eyes. From Raymond Chandler and Raoul Whitfield, through Ross Macdonald and William Gault, to current bestsellers Robert Crais and Walter Mosley, P.I.s have laid claim to the City of Angels.
Chandler, the poet laureate of those mean streets, tagged the turf first, and even now, it's safe to say he has dibs on the Los Angeles of his mid-20th-century era.
But Liffey's Los Angeles is not Chandler's Los Angeles. And it hasn't been for decades.
Liffey has a take on this town that Chandler never even truly considered. I don't buy into the racist label that occasionally gets slapped on Chandler and Philip Marlowe by politically correct literary spin doctors who look at the past through a revisionist pinhole. But let's admit that, for the most part, Marlowe's world was pretty much white on white. Oh, he may have had no problem going into a "shine" bar in 1940's Farewell, My Lovely (albeit with Moose Malloy in tow), but he never exactly hung out much with the homies, did he?
Or do much more than give his hat to the occasional Filipino house boy, or question a Mexican gardener now and then.
And sure, Shannon's hard, lean prose can't compare with the soaring poetry and bruised romanticism of Chandler's L.A. Or the psychological plumbing and ecological hand-wringing of Macdonald's L.A., for that matter. Or the noir-black outsider rage of Mosley, or the heart-on-his-sleeve cinematic testosterone of Crais' fiction.
However, Shannon's vision encompasses and incorporates all of those. And more. The amazing thing about Shannon is that he dares to see Los Angeles as what it has become -- not one city at all, but rather a community of cities, a sprawling, poisonous cluster-fuck of increasingly isolated and polarized streets and neighborhoods and warring cities-within-cities spreading across the land like cancer, a fractured collection of clashing socio-cultural and economic agendas; a West Coast wet dream that has no center, no truly cohesive sense of self -- and seems to prefer it that way. Dreams no longer get broken here, so much as they get twisted and corrupted. Perverted, even.
In his poem "The Second Coming," William Butler Yeats wrote about a widening gyre in which
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
The "mere anarchy" Jack deals with in Shannon's stories is the American Dream left too long in the desert sun, social grievances and age-old injuries and insults that have been left not to heal, but to fester -- and occasionally erupt. And while the rising blood-dimmed tide of violence precipitated by cultural and social tensions may not have washed away all his convictions, Liffey's innocence was drowned long ago and the "passionate intensity" of his ideals has certainly been battered and chipped away at for years.
And no wonder. Liffey's the Job of private eyes, a hard-luck Energizer Bunny slowly winding down, set loose in that widening gyre. He's been adrift and circling the economic drain for a very long time, laid off from the aerospace industry years ago, divorced, kicked out by more than one good woman over time, beat up, knocked down, torn and tattered. He's suffered a major breakdown, severe depression and a collapsed lung. Yet he's somehow managed to eke out a living as a sort of unlicensed finder of lost children and to co-raise one hell of a kid, his precocious teenage daughter, Maeve.
Shannon has at times acted like a malevolent God, ensuring that Jack is almost perpetually downwardly mobile (or, at best, erratically horizontal), moving from home to home and neighborhood to neighborhood. Jack doesn't just occasionally drop down on a piece of L.A.'s crazy cultural mosaic for a book or so, and then split -- he's a thread in it himself, as deeply embedded, if not more, than Marlowe ever was.
The only constants in his life have been his daughter, his battered ideals and Los Angeles itself. And, at least since 2004's Terminal Island, Gloria Ramirez, his LAPD detective girlfriend with whom he lives in an uneasy relationship in her East L.A. house. Another American scalded by the melting pot, Gloria is a Paiute Indian reared by less-than-loving Mexican-American foster parents. Suffice it to say that the mercurial sergeant has some issues to work out -- about her heritage, her job and her relationship with Jack.
No wonder Jack's tired.
The Dark Streets -- it's weakest aspect may be its rather generic title -- finds Liffey on another wandering-daughter job, trying to track down yet one more troubled teenager. His client is a Korean-American businessman who wants him to find his daughter, Soon-Lin Kim, a young film student and political activist. According to her glib, cynical younger brother, also a film student, Soon-Lin has been working on a documentary film about several elderly local women, all Korean immigrants, all facing eviction. The ladies were once "comfort women," forced to serve as sexual slaves by Japanese invaders during the Second World War. In an ironic twist, the hotel turned boardinghouse they all live in has been purchased and slated for demolition by Daeshin, the very same Korean global conglomerate whose corporate beginnings date back to a possible wartime clandestine collaboration with the Japanese occupying forces.
Not that this is the only ironic twist in The Dark Streets.
Or the only troubled teenager.
While Jack's busy looking for Soon-Lin, and while her mother tries to sort out yet another personal crisis, the always-impulsive Maeve -- the little girl who once played I Spy the Weirdness with dear ol' dad, and whose impulsiveness and wide-eyed idealism have lead her into trouble before -- has reached puberty with a vengeance. She's just turned 17 (you know what I mean) and has become obsessed with East L.A. gang culture -- and in particular, the handsome cholo who lives next door to Gloria.
But the ultimate twist here comes when Jack himself goes missing.
With the action constantly switching back and forth from Maeve's ongoing soap opera to Gloria's increasingly frantic and desperate search for Jack, to Jack himself; and with the heart-breaking confessions of the former comfort women transcribed from Soon-Lin's documentary-in-progress interspersed throughout, The Dark Streets keeps you unbalanced and unsettled, not quite sure what to expect next. But damn, it keeps you reading.
Before the ride's over, you'll have met assorted zealots of all types and stripes, including trigger-happy feds, militant Asian-American radicals, out-sourced paramilitary types, some crazed booksellers, flag-waving yahoos playing Homeland Security, a torturer or two and slimy greed-is-good corporate scoundrels. There are also some raging teenage hormones, a Waco-like standoff, plenty of bureaucratic hypocrisy from both the public and private sectors, some penetrating looks into the Korean-American and Mexican-American communities and post-9/11 hysteria, a prison-for-hire tucked away in the desert, a little PATRIOT Act paranoia, the unearthing of a 60-year old scandal and even a savage update on F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic short story "Bernice Bobs Her Hair."
If rocker Warren Zevon -- another great L.A. writer -- still lived, The Dark Streets would have made a hell of a song.
Because in this one, the shit has definitely hit the fan. And lawyers, guns and money might not be enough to clean up the mess.
The Dark Streets should be a big, bleak mess of a book, all heartbreak and shallow cynicism and messy loose ends and a checklist of empty talking points; but Shannon pulls it off with his usual wit, compassion and economy, never short-changing the humanity of his characters -- or his readers. He leaves just enough plot elements dangling to have us begging for the next book. And gives us just enough hope to want to live that long.
And plenty to think about until then.
In a better world, one where people cared more about each other than what they're wearing or what they're driving or what's on television, Shannon and Jack Liffey would be -- should be -- household names.
But it doesn't look like that's gonna happen.
Not tonight, anyway. Apparently, Idol's on at 9 p.m.
John, call me.
I've got Paris' number. | March 2007
Kevin Burton Smith is a January Magazine contributor, a Mystery Scene columnist and the editor/creator of The Thrilling Detective Web Site. He currently bides his time in the California High Desert, just north of Los Angeles, waiting for the Big One.