Cannell's 'The Tin Collectors': Gimme that old-time religion

On Books

January 21, 2001|By Michael Pakenham

Ever notice how much popular fiction is the Book of Job? Take "The Tin Collectors" by Stephen J. Cannell (St. Martin's, 389 pages, $24.95). Almighty God is not bringing down every imaginable plague and woe on Chief Righteous Everyman. The mayor of Los Angeles and his pals are doing it -- to LAPD Detective Sgt. Shane Scully. Don't quibble; if you're an LA cop, there is no Higher Power.

Scully -- call him Shane, he's on our side -- cuts a lot of corners off righteousness, which Job never did. But the saga delivers upon him afflictions that are barely bearable. In the long run ... Well, we all remember Job ultimately lived well, and "died, being old and full of days." In Cannell's yarn, the nemesis isn't God and thus the bad guys get theirs -- bloody side up -- when the good guys prevail.

In my television-watching days, I was vaguely annoyed by a signature trademark of Stephen J. Cannell tickling the keys of a typewriter, then flourishing a page from the platen and flinging it into the atmosphere, where it fluttered and planed for a moment and then planted itself, if memory serves, as the credit panel for the show.

Beginning in the mid-1960s, Cannell, who now is 60, has written and produced for television a seemingly endless series of series: "The Rockford Files," "Silk Stalkings," "The A-Team," "21 Jump Street," "Wiseguy" and "The Commish." He often says in interviews that he writes "David and Goliath stories" -- same old Old Testament. He has announced this is the first of a series of novels built around Shane. Already, he has written five novels, the first published in 1995. All have hit best seller lists.

He came to the novel lately. But he's a good reporter. This book has all the mechanics of a first-rate "police procedural" -- pop-lit talk for cop-insider fiction.

As it begins, Shane, 37, a bachelor, is taking care of Charles "Chooch" Sandoval, 15, a gland-revved terror about to be thrown out of boarding school. He's the son of Sandy Sandoval, a ravishingly lovely informant of Shane's -- undercover in more ways than one -- who's busy getting the goods on drug biggies for the DEA. Shane gets a call from Barbara Molar. She screams she's being beat up by her husband, Ray Molar, Shane's ex-partner.

Ray is "a cop's cop" -- decorated for valor, illustrious for detecting techniques, legendary for "mentoring" young police academy graduates, widely beloved. Trouble is, he also has a pathological temper, an insatiable appetite for violence.

To keep Ray from killing his wife with a nightstick and Shane himself with a pistol, Shane has to shoot Ray, dead. Ray fired the first shot. Righteous.

Then everything goes wrong. Ray has been serving as the mayor's bodyguard and driver. Shane is more persecuted than prosecuted by the whole police structure, but he can't figure out why. He starts digging.

About three quarters of the way, the pendulum begins to slow, a crisis takes shape, the rising action of the bad guys slows and the good guys tentatively take hold. Aristotle would be proud. By the four-fifths point, Truth, Justice and the American Way begin to take over -- through a lot of terrified, scrambling, often not quite legal action. It's messy, of course, but it ends up all right, at least for the good guys who are left alive, which is several nice folks short of the total.

The writing style is brisk, direct, full of short sentences and very few commas. The action moves fast. Details abound: precise times, exact distances, street names.

Lots of good cop talk: The book's title refers to successful Internal Affairs Division investigators -- "tin" being the badges of dismissed policemen. "Street divorce" is a domestic altercation that becomes homicide. "TG" means "tiny gangster," a known associate of a street gang. In administrative circles, "a great white" is a cruising supervisor -- "all he does is swim and eat."

One technique that can work on paper almost as well as on television is the action-to-action fast switch -- short scenes or chapters, each an anecdote, a little playlet, almost an instant. You might call the device "flicking" from one scene and action to another.

Cannell is good at that, very good. But this volume is not to be confused with literature, either in effect or ambition. It is much like television on paper. And its superficiality is more emphatic than if it were a television program.

The characters are immutable, with little depth or complexity. In television, a lot of characterization occurs simply because actors appear as live beings, bringing with them an apparent human complexity. That job takes serious deftness on a flat white page with nothing but black letters on it.

Cannell is smooth, slick and fast moving. He has a keen ear for cop-talk. But he can be lead-eared and lazy. He begins chapter 30 with grandness on his mind:

"The sun set slowly and magnificently over the Pacific Ocean. Scattered clouds that were strung across the horizon in steel-gray formations suddenly turned deep purple, riding above the dark blue sea like a colorful celestial armada until the sun was gone and night claimed its final victory."

It's worth thinking how enormously that would be improved simply by excising nine words:

"The sun set magnificently over the Pacific. Scattered clouds, strung across the horizon in steel-gray formations, turned deep purple, riding above the dark blue sea like a celestial armada until the sun was gone and night claimed victory."

That's still a cliche -- a chestnut. But it's a chestnut without whipped cream and a cherry on top.

Or, better yet, maybe the whole thing should be left to the Old Testament -- or camera work. Cannell is good -- really good -- at television.

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