Friday, 6 May 2011

JOHN SHANNON'S POISON SKY: A Forgotten Friday Entry

It was a couple of years ago I wrote about John Shannon's Palos Verde Blue for my American Eye column in Shots (you can link to it via this post), so when this earlier (2000) Jack Liffey novel crossed my path, I read it with great interest, to see where Liffey was then, and how Shannon wrote about him.

In some ways, The Poison Sky is a better novel, particularly for the way it backgrounds Liffey's own life and character somewhat, and brings to the foreground his observations. In this he reminded me of Lew Archer, and the careful way in which Ross MacDonald kept Archer's perceptions relatively neutral; he served as an unusually accurate and detailed observer, but he kept the reader on an even footing. Rarely do you have to filter what you are seeing through your own apprehension of Archer's prejudices or blind spots. And when Liffey is hired to find a runaway boy who's hooked up with an extremely defensive and secretive religious cult we are in prime Archer territory, and Shannon handles it brilliantly. Liffey's empathy brings out people's true feelings, and his cracking wise doesn't hurt either, but the story is never about him. The big question, however, is why the cult seems to be coming down on him so hard.

The other plot concerns the boy's father, who has been the victim of an industrial accident at work, and has been researching Bophal online. Of course the stories overlap, and that is where Palos Verdes Blue displays a surer hand; the entry of hardened criminals into the story and the action climax in The Poison Sky are a hard trick to pull off, and Shannon can't do it without changing the tone somewhat, to the point where Liffey himself seems almost a different character. That may be what you have to lose when you're that close to Lew Archer, but if Liffey is more his own man in later novels, it means the story proceeds more seamlessly. Where the comparison with MacDonald holds up further, and what is the same in both the Liffey novels I've read, is the way social concerns are central to the story, and the crime. There isn't the buried past which always seems to resurface in MacDonald (James Lee Burke has now cornered the market in that) but Liffey's cases always seem to confront society's ills head on, and we need more of that.

So in the end I discovered what I'd set to, how Shannon was writing and what Liffey was like then. If it's impressive to create a character like Lew Archer, it's even more impressive when he becomes a character like himself.

No comments :