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.