Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Who's Afraid of Big Bad Jack?

The private eye, at his best, is and always has been a man (or woman) of his times and his world. And you can’t get much more man-of-his-times than John Shannon’s Jack Liffey, who makes his 11th appearance in the just released Palo Verdes Blue.

Me, personally, I think this is one of the finest, most sustained and boldest detective series to ever be set in Los Angeles -- an extended valentine to a battered, tattered City of Angels and its citizens that never fails to entertain and to challenge. But imaginative plots, rock-solid writing, living breathing characters and an unwavering intelligence and compassion evidently aren't enough for mystery readers these days.

What more do they want?

Tits? Beheadings? Torture?

Maybe John isn't quite the man of his times I thought, because if there's one recurring theme in the reviews of his last few books, it's the nagging mysteryn that keeps turning up. As a recent Booklist review (starred, of course) so succinctly put it, “With a hero as brainy, compassionate, and conflicted as this, the only real mystery is why these books aren’t bestsellers.

Even I'm getting a little cranky waving the flag here. My guess is that, in an increasingly polarized cultural and political landscape where opposing political, cultural and social philosophies are too often endlessly smacked together for simple entertainment value under the guise of “news,” and the “analysis” offered is really just a dumbed down demolition derby, Jack scares people.

i mean, this is a culture where a large segment of its citizens, if they even care about the news at all, turn on the boob tube to hear the president referred to as "Hitler" by camera-sucking "patriots;" where a beloved commentator publicly hopes the entire country's economy will crash and burn to prove some dubious political point, where namecalling and bullying have replaced rational debate. So, a series that dares to ask people to think for themselves, to not jump to conclusions, to look at multiple sides of an issue instead of jumping on the bandwagon du jour -- yeah, I guess I could see how that might unsettle people. I guess, for some people, Jack is scary.

Which is a laugh. Jack’s probably one of the most soft-spoken and least threatening private eyes around. Not that he’s a wimp, or that he doesn’t display rather amazing resilience at times, but this Los Angeles-based finder of lost children has never met a one-sided argument in his life.

For some readers – particularly those more accustomed to having their opinions (and their crime fiction) pre-digested and spoon-fed to them, that can be heady stuff. And possibly a little bewildering.

So maybe it’s simply commercial frustration, but this time Shannon pulls out all the stops. Everything that is wonderful about this series is cranked up a notch – there are even more memorable characters, even more So Cal weirdness, even more of LA’s endless sub-cultures to explore, even more ideas fleshed out and stamped with a human face. Shannon doesn't so much offer talking points as thinking points.

As a favor to his ex-wife Kathy, Jack reluctantly agrees to look for her best friend’s precocious, idealistic teenage daughter. But what at first seems like just another wandering daughter job soon has the detective bumping up against the spoiled, territorial surfer brats of the swanky Palos Verdes enclave, not to mention cranked-up white supremacists, burnt-out cops, the obscenely rich and the murky world of illegal immigrants who serve them -- including a young Mexican day laborer who just wants to hang ten. Meanwhile, Jack’s own precocious, idealistic teenage daughter, Maeve, hits another speed bump on her ongoing journey to define herself. That the author is growing impatient (critical acclaim and rave reviews don’t pay the rent) might be guessed by the defiant, almost surreal, even more-audacious-than-usual vaguely apocalyptic conclusion with which he wraps things up. But somehow, once again Shannon manages to pull it off with his by now trademark wit and compassion.

Scary stuff, indeed.

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Blogger Kieran Shea said...


Goddamn I loved that book. The whole series. Did a post on my own blog about PVB a few weeks ago...


Be well.

7:17 AM, May 07, 2009  
Blogger Kevin Burton Smith said...

Anyone who hasn't read Kieran's review is urged to disregard The Ventures and run, don't walk, to his review where Kieran kicks a little surfing ass himself.

6:52 PM, May 11, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cool article as for me. It would be great to read a bit more about that theme.
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3:27 AM, November 21, 2009  

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