Although this is the 14th title in his Jack Liffey mystery series, John Shannon remains one of the lesser-known Los Angeles-based crime authors working today. What’s all the more frustrating is that he is also one of the very best. THE CHINESE BEVERLY HILLS ably demonstrates why and stands as another noteworthy addition to this rewarding series.
A brush fire rages in the hills above L.A. and firefighting jumpers are dropped in the middle of it. One firefighter makes a horrifying discovery just as the flames threatens to overtake him.
Meanwhile, after a bit of a dry spell in his career as a finder of missing children, Jack Liffey welcomes the opportunity of a new assignment. Trouble is, it comes from Tien Joubert, a lovely and successful Vietnamese entrepreneur he had a fling with a few years ago. She is just as uninhibited and oversexed as ever, but somehow manages to convey the details of a missing Chinese schoolgirl in Monterey Park who is the daughter of close family friends.
Jack takes the case, but finds it increasingly difficult to resist Tien’s unyielding come-ons, especially since Gloria, his live-in girlfriend of several years, is recovering from a brutal beating and can’t stand to be touched.
At the same time, a group of Eastern oil-rich Tea Party members are courting the remaining members of a racist Monterey Park biker gang to join the Tea Party’s ultra-conservative political movement. As incentive, the Tea Party hires an outrageously reactionary white South African, now a US citizen patrolling the Mexican border, to be the guest speaker at a local keg party.
Jack’s investigation eventually leads him to the bikers as he learns the shocking truth about the missing schoolgirl, her odd involvement with the bikers and that discovery in the charred ruins of the fire-ravaged hills above the cities.
Shannon masterfully balances the complexities of the missing schoolgirl mystery with the quieter, but no less perplexing conflicts in Jack’s personal life. Try as he might, Jack finds it impossible to compartmentalize the two, especially since his current employer is in large part why his after-hours life is in such a tailspin.
Along with all this, the author brings us up to date with Maeve, Jack’s college-freshman daughter, who is still struggling with her sexual orientation — although leaning heavily toward lesbianism. Plus, her newfound passion for painting is another reason her studies at UCLA are suffering. Rather than a distraction, these cut-away moments provide welcome, near-comic relief from the tensions of the main plot and give readers a chance to catch our breath.
As in previous Liffey titles, and carrying on the grand tradition of Raymond Chandler, the locale is as much a character as any single player. What distinguishes this series is Shannon’s focus on the lesser-known and far less glamorous sections of Southern California. Here, is it Monterey Park, a town southeast of L.A. coming to grips with its expanding immigrant population and the resentment and racism that result from such changes. These frustrations and how they are manipulated by political strategists give the novel a bracing relevancy not often found in crime fiction.
The SoCal climate and environment also play a role as the author weaves the devastation of raging brush fires and the equally damaging effects of heavy rain on the newly barren and parched earth directly into the story, adding unanticipated grace notes to the overall suspense.
We are all the more fortunate that in the face of shifting publishers and an as yet undiscovered readership, Shannon still produces superb fiction. THE CHINESE BEVERLY HILLS has it all: an intriguing mystery, varied yet credible characters, a masterful sense of place and a contemporary relevance effortlessly incorporated into a story that resonates long after its resolution.
No more excuses, folks. Treat yourself to this latest title and then prepare to track down all the Jack Liffey novels that came before. It may be a challenge, but you’ll thank yourself for the effort. —Alan Cranis