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Crime and wit in the City of Angels

Dick Lochte is a critic of crime fiction and author of the suspense thriller "Sleeping Dog."

John Shannon’s “Dangerous Games” is that rara avis -- a beautifully plotted, character-rich crime novel, both hard-edged and humorous, that is as spot-on in portraying today’s Southern California as Raymond Chandler’s books were in his day, while paying considerably more attention to the area’s ethnic neighborhoods.

As in the author’s previous seven mysteries, the main player is Jack Liffey, a hapless but honorable man of middle years who, after losing his job as an aerospace technician in the mid-1990s, shifted to a new career as bloodhound for missing youths. His quarry here is Luisa Wilson, an 18-year-old Native American fresh off the reservation in Owens Valley seeking fame and fortune as a porn movie starlet.

Liffey’s sleuthing is initiated by Luisa’s aunt, Los Angeles police Sgt. Gloria Ramirez, a Paiute Indian raised by a Mexican American family, and the latest in a long line of “difficult” women in the private detective’s checkered romantic history. Liffey and the sergeant are sharing a cottage in East L.A. where, even before he can start his search, his visiting daughter, Maeve, is shot by a gangbanger with the unlikely name of Thumb Estrada.

Momentarily setting aside his quest for Luisa, Liffey rides out for vengeance. But as things go in Shannon’s L.A. (which covers both the real and the surreal city), his fatherly fury dissipates with the discovery that Thumb isn’t the homicidal hardball he’d imagined. Showing even more sides than a George Pelecanos D.C. banger, Thumb, who’s hoping to take the GED exam so he can “go on up to City ... [and] learn computers,” doesn’t know why the sight of a man and his daughter automatically caused him to fire his weapon: “He had an idea about it, almost an idea. He sensed there was a reason. The reason was like an animal waiting to be coaxed forward. But in the end there was no room for it inside him and it would not come out of the shadows.”

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Meanwhile, the Candide-like Luisa is being led through the exploitation movie world by a series of sleazoids. First up is Ron, an assistant director who moonlights filming homeless boozers bribed into performing seriously dangerous MTV “Jackass"-like stunts. (“Violence is the new porn,” his avaricious partner declares with delight, after a particularly brutal setup.) Ron “trades” Luisa to Keith, a sociopath dope dealer from whom she is taken by a giant Rasta gangster named Trevor (nicknamed “Terror”), known for torturing his victims by spritzing ginger beer into their nasal passages.

With the exception of a sprinkle of Luisa’s diary entries, in which she gives her dismal misadventures a romance novel-inspired spin, the book is presented objectively and realistically, its edgier sequences frequently brightened by dark humor and even a touch of whimsy. There’s a striking sense of place throughout. Shannon grew up in San Pedro and has moved around a bit since then, evidently keeping his eyes and ears wide open. He is able to quickly get to the heart of a locale and add a typically absurdist flourish without even breathing hard: “Just before the 111 turnoff to all those rich white-belt and white-loafer cities, [Jack] passed a car that was shaped like an old dial telephone, skulking along slowly in the right lane. As he got up his courage to pull the wind-balked VW over a lane to pass, the giant receiver lifted a foot off its cradle and a sign popped up to say, ‘It’s for you.’ ”

Shannon can also note the difference between a cumbia beat and a norteno ballad, point out that “Cedars-Sinai had been founded as two much smaller clinics, both, in fact, in Boyle Heights” and that “gang wannabes, junior high delinquents and such” get stoned by sniffing Pam pan spray. And, along with the insightful characterizations and smartly evoked locations, he can move his tale logically and furiously toward a thrilling shootout in the midst of a rapidly spreading fire in the Malibu Hills.

Shannon is the real deal, a knowledgeable writer in full control of his material and talented enough to make “Dangerous Games” one of this year’s most satisfying crime novels. *


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