John may specialize in fiction, but San Pedro-born novelist Shannon is as much a journalist as he is a mystery writer.
To research each of his 11 Jack Liffey mystery novels, Shannon dove into the underbellies of Los Angeles, exploring topics ranging from the sex trade in Koreatown to the riots in South Central.
So while his stories are fictional, their backdrops are often based on stark realities.
“Almost all of my books have some underlying factual basis,” said Shannon, 65, whose most recent work turns the spotlight on the South Bay. “I thought, ‘If I’m going to keep writing these mysteries, how am I going to keep it interesting? How am I going to not get bored?’ So each book goes into a different ethnic community of Los Angeles, a different subculture.”
Palos Verdes Blue(Pegasus, 2009) centers around private investigator Jack Liffey (the protagonist in all of Shannon’s mysteries), a finder of missing children who is enlisted to locate a teenage girl nicknamed “Blue.” Along the way, he discovers an intense turf war between Mexican day laborers living in the Peninsula hills and local surf gangs who terrorize anyone who wanders near their waves.
When the feud turns violent, it draws in arsonists, angry bikers, border vigilantes and Liffey’s own daughter, who puts herself at risk to help her father.
Shannon said he based Liffey’s character – a 60-something divorced detective with an admittedly flawed personality – on his own quirks.
“I didn’t want to write the usual mystery with the two-fisted hero who’s drunk all the time,” Shannon said. “I just wanted an ordinary guy who gets laid off from aerospace, which I had been. I just wanted an ordinary person who gets into the kind of trouble that maybe a detective would get into, but doesn’t have the skills of being able to get his way out of it.”
Shannon said he was inspired to write about the Palos Verdes Peninsula by his own experiences growing up in San Pedro. He said that back then, the differences between the working-class port town and the upscale people on the Palos Verdes “Hill” were obvious.
“We thought of ‘The Hill’ as all rich people and horsey people,” said Shannon, who now lives in Topanga. “I would hear about fights breaking out occasionally between Latinos and surfers. The book is basically about a feud between Mexican day laborers living in the hills and the snottier kids.”
Local readers will recognize South Bay tidbits, namely the stunning Lunada Bay landscape (though, Shannon noted, he makes it a sand beach instead of its actual rocky shoreline) and references to the Peninsula’s fiercely territorial surfers, known as the “Bay Boys.”
“I try not to make them the bad guys,” he said of the surfers. “They’re just a little club that’s developed this reputation and they have to maintain it. They’re an exotic part of the area.”
To research his book, Shannon spent time watching surfers on Lunada Bay (until they started questioning him) and interviewing locals. He acquired some of his knowledge of the Bay Boys from author Joy Nicholson’s “The Tribes of Palos Verdes” and interviews with a former Bay Boy who was referred to him by a friend.
“I didn’t base the characters on any particular person whom I spoke to,” Shannon said.
Between the lines, Shannon touches on issues of racism, particularly between Latinos and whites.
“There’s so much hostility toward Latinos now,” he said. “I had heard about the day laborers living rough in the hills in San Juan Capistrano. I don’t know if there are any living here, I can’t honestly say, but I wouldn’t be surprised if somewhere in those rougher canyons there are some gardeners and pool boys who can’t afford an apartment and they’ve set up tents.”
It’s not the first time Shannon has addressed racism in his books. The author spent much of the 1970s as a political activist and taught school in Africa while working for the Peace Corps, so incorporating racial, social or political issues into his work is not surprising.
His next two books will continue the trend, with one about a man who was conceived at a Topanga Canyon sex compound and another about the battle between the homeless and property developers on Los Angeles’ skid row.
Shannon said he’ll keep writing Liffey stories as long as there are new neighborhoods in which to set them.
“There are a lot of subcultures I haven’t dealt with yet, so I’ve got a few more books left to do,” he said.
In particular, he said, he’d like to write a book about L.A.’s Armenian community.
“It’s challenging, but it’s also kind of fun, because you’re learning about a part of the city that you live in.”
Palos Verdes Blue