Stephen J. Cannell Analysis


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Writing first for television, Stephen J. Cannell created a new kind of detective, one who is flawed, flouts authority, and is comfortable being nonviolent and slightly odd. This kind of protagonist is more human than heroic but manages to defeat evildoers nevertheless. Though somewhat of a loner, the detective has loyal friends who often provide aid and comic relief. The unusual and unexpected attracted Cannell from the beginning of his writing career. His main characters do not hesitate to break the law or use violence in the name of justice. After writing more than fifteen hundred television dramas, Cannell turned to writing novels with the same energy, commitment, and imagination that made his television scripts successful. The broader canvas of the novel enabled him to develop more complicated plots, to create more complex interaction among a larger group of characters, and to expand the main character’s background and relationships.

The premise of many of Cannell’s plots is violent conflict perpetrated by a menagerie of evil characters in gritty locations, earning him the nickname the “Merchant of Mayhem” and the reputation of a writer who features “bullets and babes.” Some critics, perhaps doubting that a writer as prolific and successful as Cannell could be very good, have called his characters cartoonlike and shallow and his plots too action-oriented and too violent. However, the popularity of his television shows and novels and the longevity of his success are proof that he knew what makes writing good entertainment and how to provide it.


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Cannell, Stephen J. “Archive of American Television Interview with Stephen J. Cannell.” Interview by Stephen J. Abramson. Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation, 2004. A nine-part, four-and-a-half-hour series of videotaped interviews covering Cannell’s life and career from his childhood to June, 2004; includes Cannell’s comments on the art of fiction writing.

Edelstein, Robert. “Stephen J. Cannell.” Broadcasting and Cable 137, no. 3 (January 15, 2003): A8. A profile of Cannell that concentrates on his career in television although it discusses his move to writing. Praises his ability to create memorable and unusual characters and to write rapidly and well.

Keller, Julia. “A Novel Idea: Former Television Giant Stephen Cannell Chooses Writing Books over Hollywood.” Knight Ridder Tribune News Services, September 28, 2005, p. 1. This profile of Cannell done on his release of Cold Hit (2005) examines his decision to turn to novel writing not for the money but for his love of writing. He speaks of his dyslexia and a college professor who motivated him.

Marc, David, and Robert J. Thompson. Prime Time, Prime Movers: From “I Love Lucy” to “L.A. Law”—America’s Greatest TV Shows and the People Who Created Them. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1995. Discusses television comedy shows and dramas and the people who made them; includes a chapter on Roy Huggins, who was Cannell’s mentor, and Cannell himself. Although it focuses on Cannell as a television writer, it sheds light on his work as a novelist.

Pickett, Debra. “Sunday Lunch with . . . Stephen J. Cannell.” Chicago Sun-Times, September 17, 2006, p. A20. Profile and interview with Cannell looks at his success and his values, which he says were influenced by his being born into wealth, the death of his fifteen-year-old son, his dyslexia, and his father’s death.

Thompson, Robert J. Adventures on Prime Time: The Television Programs of Stephen J. Cannell. New York: Praeger, 1990. Sees Cannell as the epitome of the television “auteur” and surveys his television career and his works up to the success of Wiseguy (1987-1990). Helps readers understand Cannell’s background.