Vigilante (2011), by Stephen J. Cannell


Cannell, who completed this final novel just before he passed in 2010, has always seemed in his TV teleplays (The Rockford Files, The Commish, etc.) and in his detective novels (the Shane Scully novels, etc.) to be adapting the hardboiled detective tradition to the changing times. He’s a wonderful, lean plotter with a light touch, an elegant understated way of narrating a story, and a mischievous and enticing humor who early fell in love with the Chandler-Hammett tradition and became a prominent agent of its modern evolution. Cannell has greatly helped make them and it hang around. We should be grateful, for these times, like any others, certainly can use that tradition and its suspenseful devices for the revelation of conspiratorial threats.

First, though, it should be said that nowhere in Cannell will you find any passages near the quality of this one by Raymond Chandler, one of the many to be delighted in on every page of every one of his major novels: here is a place Marlowe approaches for the first time in Farewell, My Lovely:

“1644 West 54th Place was a dried-out brown house with a dried-out brown lawn in front of it. There was a large bare patch around a tough-looking palm tree. On the porch stood one lonely wooden rocker, and the afternoon breeze made the unpruned shoots of last year’s poinsettias tap-tap against the cracked stucco wall. A line of stiff yellowish half-washed clothes jittered on a rusty wire in the side yard.”

You won’t find anything nearly this good in Michael Connelly, either, or in any other detective novelist of today. You’ll be in a tough search to find competitive passages even in Graham Greene’s superbly atmospheric “entertainments” (e.g., The Third Man).

The great movie, Chinatown, screenplay by Robert Towne, dark ending thanks to Roman Polanski refusing to be Hollywood sentimental, together with the inspired performances of John Huston, Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway, is just better than anything Cannell or anyone else in the hardboiled/noir tradition since Chandler-Hammett has put together.

But Cannell has his strengths. In Vigilante, his greatest strength, adapting the hardboiled revelatory storytelling about conspiracy to advancing history, is to have his distant cousin of Philip Marlowe, Shane Scully, discover the midnight evil in the plague of TV reality shows, including not only crime stuff–imagine a thoroughly corrupt America’s Most Wanted–but all the way out to Swamp People on the “History” Channel. In short, if Jon Stewart had to remind John Edwards back in ’08 that The Daily Show wouldn’t do for a candidacy announcement because Stewart’s is “a fake news show,” Cannell does Wag the Dog one much better in Vigilante by revealing the corrupt tendencies in “reality TV,” namely, that they are fake reality shows and, more importantly, their popularity is Bad News and creates worse and worse production mendacity, a sort of fraudulent farce. Cannell calls the version here Vigilante TV, hosted by a character, a very smooth bad guy, called Nixon Nash. (Yes, Cannell has read Garry Wills’s Nixon Agonistes, but such funny stealing can’t be all bad, can it? [To judge by his coded allusions and wordplays and inside jokes throughout his teleplays and novels, Cannell may have read almost everything.] Besides, Cannell writes much better than does Wills: Wills Yawn begs literary existence.)

Vigilante is the classic stuff. One Lita Mendez, much worse than a pest to the LAPD owing to her increasingly public attacks on its integrity, is found horribly murdered in her home in a gang-infested area on whose mean streets she had been left unharmed for years, perhaps even admired, in her crusade. Who did it? Why? Since “nothing is as it seems” in the genre, you know to look around. And then look around again. You come upon Vigilante TV. The Swamp People. Well….

Excellent for long plane rides, quiet Saturdays and the like.

Cannell is worth the time, especially in this last of his novels. He’s right up-to-date, even though he can’t do terribly well in describing Lita’s mean streets. What he surely can do, thanks to his years in TV production and scripting, is to bring out the enormous shadow of one of our whales swimming right under us and almost hidden some feet below the glittering surface. Starts out like an optical illusion before the inversion of “reality.”