Review of "On the Nickel," a mystery by John Shannon
ON THE NICKEL
By John Shannon
Severn House. 278 pp. $28.95
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.
Taylor regularly reviews mysteries and thrillers for the Post.