Friday, March 06, 2009

ON THE GRIND by Stephen J. Cannell

Shane Scully is an LAPD detective. He has been on the right side of the law his entire career, but everything seemingly falls apart in scandal. He is charged with intentionally losing evidence and sleeping with a film star who tried to hire him—as an undercover cop—to kill her wealthy husband. He is unceremoniously kicked off the force and as a last resort, since no other respectable agency will hire him, he settles into the corrupt Haven Park Police Department.

Haven Park is corrupt from top to bottom. There is a car towing scam, a local gang that is protected by the department, and so many other little rip-offs and grinds that the department has only one rule: take your share and pass the rest to the guy above you. The guy at the top is the mayor and the reason it works and nobody complains is because Haven Park is a city of mostly illegal immigrants who don’t dare say a word.

There is only one problem for the Haven Park status quo. There is a former boxer—a hero to most of the Hispanic population—who wants the mayor’s job, and it looks like he’s going to win at the polls. And the mayor and his corrupt police department will do anything to make sure it doesn’t happen.

On the Grind is the first Stephen J. Cannell novel I have read. It is the eighth novel to feature Shane Scully and I was impressed. The story hits overdrive in a hurry; there is no idling, no coasting, and not much of anything between actions scenes. The chapters are short and the prose is tight and sparse. It has the feel of a good episode of Cannell’s old television series Renegade—less the Harley, Hummer, and long hair—mixed with a modern and very unsentimental thriller.

It does have two flaws (if I can call them flaws, because it is more personal taste than anything), both related to the other; too little backstory and not enough detective philosophizing. I probably need to define the later. One of the hallmarks of a good detective novel is the unique vision of the world the protagonist brings to the story. The philosophies he / she shares with the reader and the way the ideas illuminate something about the human condition. This shouldn’t be confused with slow and unrelenting minutia, but rather quick and brief punches of insight.

I know what you’re thinking—On the Ground is a police procedural, but it really isn’t. It is a detective novel—almost a straight up private eye novel—dressed as a police procedural and it works very well. But it would work even better if Mr Cannell worked in just a little more insight into the story.

That said, I really enjoyed On the Grind. It is the first Stephen J. Cannell novel I have read, but it most definitely won’t be the last.

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