Stephen J. Cannell Critical Essays


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Stephen J. Cannell, an exceptionally fast writer with a fertile imagination, demonstrated an uncanny ear for the rhythms and vocabulary of streetwise characters and a talent for humor and for plot-driven drama. He once said that he developed his fictional heroes from the point of view of their attitudes, which he believed, along with their flaws, made them believable and interesting. His fiction reflects these gifts in ample supply: It is fast-paced, full of conflict, often violent, and peopled by oddball characters. He once said that he was more interested in a character’s flaws than in his virtues; to Cannell, the flaws become virtues, making the character easily identifiable, interesting, and often likable.

In his novels, Cannell brought with him the same taste for action, complex plotting, finely etched quirky characters, and edgy, well-tuned dialogue that marked his television scripts. His first full-length novel, The Plan, builds on Cannell’s formulaic plot and character development. The action covers territory from Los Angeles to New York to the Caribbean; the main character, Ryan Bolt, is an unlikely hero. He is a television producer who faces a mighty crime organization in a high-stakes attempt to put its man in the White House; along the way, Bolt falls in love with a woman who happens to be the bad guy’s sister. The novel became a best seller and encouraged Cannell to continue in this genre, producing novels in quick succession, with many of them achieving best-seller status. All of them display the Cannell gift for fast action, surprising turns in the action, engaging characters, and snappy dialogue, a combination that rivets the thrill-seeking reader with its suspenseful outcomes.

An essential element in Cannell’s fiction is its focus on contemporary issues and subjects that have made the news or have captured the attention of readers of the news and audiences of films and television. Final Victim (1997) deals with computer hacking, criminal profiling, and a maniacal serial killer who carves up his victims with a scalpel. One of Cannell’s gifts is to repeat himself without becoming predictable or stale, and he does so by making his people believable and interesting and by continuing to surprise the reader even when it all seems familiar.

The hero of Final Victim, John Lockwood, has, like Jim Rockford, a problem with guns: Lockwood has never hit anyone at whom he has shot. Lockwood is another unlikely hero, a customs agent who is at odds with his superiors, resents authority, and generally does what he wants in order to catch the criminal. Some of the novel’s entertainment comes from Cannell’s playful names, Haze Richards, for example, as the presidential candidate; Beano X. Bates as a con man; a prosecutor nicknamed Tricky Vicky; women named Lucinda, Malavida, and Miss Laura Luna; and a long list of other names that seem oddly appropriate yet humorously inappropriate.

Some critics have bemoaned the amount of violence in Cannell’s writing and the focus on misfits and on the seamier aspects of human behavior. Cannell was accused of taking part in the perceived trend of “dumbing down” television, but he did not let such criticism change the way he wrote or what he wrote. He has said that he writes for the fun of it, not for the money or for the awards, though his shows have made him very rich and earned many awards. He wants to entertain, and he sees entertainment as a blend of humor, unusual situations, and characters with interesting flaws and odd habits. He believes that fiction must move along—hence his emphasis on action; he believes that characters should be interesting and realistic—hence the flawed antiheroes and host of quirky minor characters.

The Tin Collectors

This first novel in the Shane Scully series, The Tin...

(The entire section is 1580 words.)