Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Cracked EarthThe Cracked Earth by John Shannon
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"The Cracked Earth" is the second book in John Shannon's series about Jack Liffey, a sort of private detective, who specializes in finding missing kids. In this novel, Jack is hired by an aging famous Hollywood actress (whom he idolized in his youth) to find her missing teenage daughter. The plot widens considerably and Jack has to deal with cutting-edge video game outfits, movie companies, Jamaican gangster, Japanese companies, local skinheads and Nazi followers, and more. And even more - quite a lot of carnality is involved.

Professional critics often liken the series to Chandler's Philip Marlowe novels. I respectfully disagree; to me, the beginning of this novel, as well as some later parts, are wonderfully reminiscent of the great Ross Macdonald's writing. Jack Liffey is more intelligent than Marlowe and yet somehow more human, just like Lew Archer.

I was happy to discover that the novel is the second in the series because later Liffey books (and I have read almost all of them by now) often reek of cheap political correctness. Well, the happiness did not last long. Mr. Shannon has his heart in the right place (meaning to the left of center), sure, but in this novel he does the social/racial thing wrong again: brazenly, superficially, grotesquely.

Numerous "signature Shannon" scenes, where something extremely strange is happening in Los Angeles, add to the pleasure of reading. For instance, there is a post-earthquake scene with a grenadier who smells like beef bouillon. There is a wedding party running after a guy and cutting the tux on him with scissors. Jack finds the collected works of Lenin in a house in Hollywood Hills.

The bit about Kandinsky and synesthesia is great. Some of the final action happens close to Mulholland Drive, one of the most fascinating streets in the world. The apocalyptic scenes near the end of the novel are well written; a lesser writer would not be able to make them sound as plausible.

This is a very strange book; it combines a penetrating and wickedly funny portrayal of contemporary Los Angeles, both the place and the people, with grossly inane scenes that are supposed to illustrate the aggravation of various social and racial issues. Almost all of the bad guys are exaggerated caricatures. The hackers' dialogues sound infuriatingly bad. Admiral Wicks and Michael Chen make hard drives jump across the room, thousands of miles away, just by typing clever code. I know it is supposed to be humor, but well... It does not work.

If one could skip over all scenes that forward the plot and read only the Los Angeles bits, one would find a great book.

Two and three quarters stars.

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