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Cannell's "Riding the Snake"

October 25, 2010 - Jodelle Greiner
I remember watching Stephen J. Cannell typing away on his typewriter, ripping the sheet out and throwing it up in the air, where it would flutter for a few seconds, morphing into an animated sheet, before landing on a pile of “paper”, which curled up to form a “C”.

That’s the way the TV shows that he produced ended; shows like “The Rockford Files,” “The A-Team”, “Renegade” and many others, so I’ve known for a long time he was a TV writer, but when he started appearing on ABC’s show “Castle”, I kind of wondered why.

“Castle” follows the adventures of crime novelist “Richard Castle” (played by Nathan Fillion), as he researches the NYPD for his newest series of novels. Castle hosts a poker game for his buddies, writers all, including James Patterson, who writes in just about every genre imaginable; Michael Connelly, who I’d never heard of, but quickly learned he’s a crime novelist, too; and Cannell. I wondered what TV writer Cannell was doing with a bunch of novelists.

Turns out Cannell has been cranking out novels for quite some time. He has written 17 novels, a number of which focus on Shane Scully, and several stand-alones. I started looking for his books, so I could read one and see if I liked his style, but I couldn’t find any.

Cannell died Sept. 30 at 69 of complications from melanoma and shortly afterwards I found “Riding the Snake” in a used book store. I didn’t even read the back cover to find out what was in it. It was the only one of his books I’d been able to find, so I grabbed it.

Turns out “Riding the Snake” is about Wheeler Cassidy and LAPD Detective Tanisha Williams who team up to solve the murder of Wheeler’s brother, Prescott. The trail takes Wheeler and Tanisha to Hong Kong, Los Angeles’ Watts, and points inbetween and beyond. Along the way, they tangle with Chinese gangsters, American gangbangers, politicians on both sides, the police and their own families. Sometimes they are sneaking into areas, where, if they are caught, it means excruciating death, and sometimes they are tearing down streets at breakneck speed trying to outsmart assassins.

I have to say this is not the kind of novel I would normally read. Political and international intrigue isn’t my thing.

But you know what? Cannell is good enough to draw you in and get you to care about Chinese culture, the history of Hong Kong and Britain’s role in its rule, how the Chinese criminal Triad works and why people are willing to sell themselves to criminals to come to America. He paces the story well, alternating sections that feature different characters so the reader knows how everybody got to where they are and why.

You watch Wheeler go from a drunk country club playboy to using some long-ago skills to stand up for his brother one last time. Cannell manages to make you believe that Wheeler could honestly both love and hate his over-achieving younger brother. You understand where Tanisha comes from, why she’s tried to make something of her life instead of becoming like the others she grew up with, and what it’s cost her and why it hasn’t crushed her.

And that’s because of Cannell’s style. He can deliver a cutting observation with the precision of a Ginsu knife. He uses the worst profanity and racial remarks to make valid points. He shows the reader, he doesn’t preach at them.

He has a long list of professional credits and many people have sung his praises for the type of stand-up person he was, but I think his greatest accomplishment was the fact he became a writer even though he had severe dyslexia. Being able to tell a tale is something you’re born with and Cannell had it.

The man could communicate.


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