Monday, January 10, 2011

In The Spotlight: Stephen J. Cannell's The Tin Collectors

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Mason Canyon suggested that I spotlight work by Stephen J. Cannell, and I liked the idea. Cannell was best known for his work in television, but he was also a successful crime fiction writer and an activist for dyslexia awareness (he himself was a dyslectic). Today, let's take a closer look at The Tin Collectors, the first novel in Cannell's Shane Scully series.

Scully is an L.A.P.D. detective who's more concerned with getting the job done and doing the right thing than he is for the niceties of police bureaucracy. One night, he gets a frantic call from Barbara Molar, the wife of Scully's former partner Ray Molar. Barbara tells Scully that her husband's trying to kill her and begs Scully to come over and help her. Scully gets to the Molar home just in time to save Barbara from a severe beating. Molar shoots at Scully, who draws his gun in self-defense. Molar's bullet misses; Scully's doesn't. The police are called and Scully thinks he's simply going to have to file a routine report, since he did kill a man. To his dismay, though, the matter quickly spirals out of control. First, Ray Molar was beloved on the force - a real "cop's cop." So although Molar was, in reality, a brutal man who'd been unfaithful to his wife several times, and abused her more than once, Scully's soon isolated and outcast and becomes a department pariah. What's worse, it quickly becomes apparent that the "Powers that Be" are not going to treat this as a "regular" Internal Affairs Division (IAD) review. Instead, the IAD agents, known as "tin collectors" in the L.A.P.D., are aiming to take Scully's badge and perhaps even send him to prison. In fact, they've enlisted Alexa Hamilton, the IAD's most successful prosecutor, to take the Department's case against Scully.

Scully begins to ask questions and it's not long before he finds that he's stumbled onto something much, much bigger than a shooting. What he discovers is corruption and conspiracy that go right to the proverbial top. And the closer he gets to the truth about why he's being targeted, the more dangerous life gets for him.

Besides the Department trap that's closing around him, Scully's also facing personal challenges. He's been entrusted with the care of fifteen-year-old Charles "Chooch" Sandoval, the defiant, troubled son of Sandy Sandoval, a prostitute who's also a very successful L.A.P.D. undercover informant. Sandy's working on a difficult and dangerous assignment and doesn't want to risk her son's safety. But as Scully himself finds out more and more about what's going on in the Department, it turns out that Chooch isn't much safer with Scully than he was with his mother. In the end, Scully finds that he's going to have to act quickly if he's going to keep Chooch safe and stay alive himself.

There are several elements running through this novel. One of them is its pace and the timing of events. This is an action novel, so there aren't really many quiet scenes. The story begins with action and the pace stays fast throughout the novel. On one hand, the pace serves the story well, as it keeps the tension high and the reader turning pages. On the other, those who prefer quiet, more slower-moving stories may find the pace less to their liking.

Another important element in this novel is the effect of pre-judgements and assumptions. Like most of us do, Scully and some of the other characters in the novels make some important assumptions about others. And yet, very little is what it seems. As the novel moves on, we learn how wrong some of those pre-judgements are. For instance, most people assume that Ray Molar was an upstanding cop who was determined to protect civilians and "get the bad guy." The reality is, though, that he was a brutal, abusive person. Shane Scully assumes that "ice queen" Alexa Hamilton is "The Enemy" who volunteered to prosecute his case so that she could have revenge on him for besting her in a case years earlier. For her part, Hamilton assumes that Scully is guilty not only of murder but also of stealing valuable evidence from the Molar home. Neither is correct about the other, and the more they learn about the truth on both sides, the more aware they both become of who the real enemy is. We also learn several surprising truths about other characters as Scully gets past his set of assumptions and learns whom he can really trust and whom he cannot trust.

The Tin Collectors takes place against the backdrop of an official investigation into Scully's actions on the night of Ray Molar's death, there's also an important procedural element in this novel. It's not what you'd call a typical police procedural (if there is such a thing). However, there's plenty of information about the steps that the IAD takes when a police officer is involved in a shooting or when there's any other kind of investigation into police conduct. For example, very shortly after Molar's death, Scully is taken to Parker Center, the main police headquarters. There, he's interviewed by Deputy Police Chief Mayweather about the incident. Here's just a snippet of the conversation:

"'What goes on here is subject to the Police Bill of Rights under Title One,' Mayweather continued, 'so this pre-interview will not preempt any of your Skelly rights or privileges guaranteed by Section 202 of the city charter.' The Skelly hearing was his [Scully's] chance to answer the charges against him before his case went to a Board of Rights, if it got that far..."

'This tape-recorded interview is for use in an Internal Affairs investigation only….If no action is taken within a year of this date, the investigation will officially be determined to be closed…'

'Are you aware that the nature of this interview is to determine if the escalated force that resulted in Lieutenant Molar's death was within departmental use-of-force guidelines?'

'Yes, sir….'

Throughout the novel, there are references to the policies that govern police conduct, the procedures everyone's supposed to follow and the steps that are taken when people act outside of those policies and procedures. It's clear that Cannell "did his homework."

There's also a "hardboiled" element in this novel that seems to suit the topic and the characters. The story's gritty, and although Scully's vindicated and the "bad guys" caught, it's not what you'd call a neat, "happy" ending. There's some violence (although I will say it's not gratuitous or overly graphic), and like other "hardboiled" sleuths, Scully doesn't always play by the rules. There's a real blurring of the lines between right and wrong, too, as Scully does what he has to do to clear his name, keep Chooch safe and find out the truth about what's going on in the department.

The Tin Collectors
explores the inner workings of a large, politicized law enforcement bureaucracy. It also shows the effects of prejudices and assumptions on people's reactions and behaviour. There's also plenty of conspiracy, corruption and intrigue and all of it plays out in the context of a fast-moving, "hardboiled" story. But what's your view? Have you read The Tin Collectors? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

Monday 17 January/Tuesday 18 January -
Green For Danger - Christianna Brand

Monday 24 January/Tuesday 25 January -
An Advancement of Learning - Reginald Hill

Monday 31 January/Tuesday 1 February - Readers' Choice! Check the poll on my sidebar and vote for the novel you would like me to put in the spotlight. The novel with the most votes by Monday 24 January gets the spotlight!


  1. I haven't read it but I enjoy a good action mystery. I like it when the detectives are the ones that have to find their way out of a hole and especially when they think outside the box. I think this might be one of those stories.

  2. Clarissa - It really is. Scully really does have to find his own way out of the trap he's in, and it takes creativity (not all of it, I'll admit, legal). In this novel, I will say Scully isn't as fully developed as he is in later novels, but still, I wouldn't exactly call him "flat," either.

  3. Thank you for the mention and thanks so much for spotlighting this author. I've always enjoyed his TV shows, but I've never read any of his books. They are definitely going on my wish list now. I have At First Sight by him on audio and look forward to listening to it. Your spotlight on this book sounds like it would be one that I would really enjoy. Thanks again.

    Thoughts in Progress

  4. Mason - Oh, my pleasure! It was a good idea, and I appreciate it that you shared it. I used to watch Cannell's shows, too, and liked some of them. I confess I haven't read At First Sight, but from what I have read of his stuff, you will probably will enjoy it - and I hope you'll like this one, too.

  5. I have never heard of Cannell or The Tin Collectors, but this plot sounds really interesting. I don't generally read "hardboiled" mysteries, but your description of Scully brought John Rebus to mind, and I love Rebus! This is now on my to-read list.

  6. Book Mole - Oh, I hope you'll enjoy it. I like Rebus very much, too, and there are quite a lot of similarities between him and Scully. In this particular novel, Scully isn't quite as well-developed a character as the Rebus we've come to love, but they do have some things in common.

  7. Sounds like a good one, even if it might be a little edgier than my usual reads. Thanks for the recommendation, Margot!

  8. Elizabeth - It is edgy, but it's not "out there," and Cannell does a solid job of building up tension and keeping the action coming while still keeping focused on the plot thread.

  9. I didn't even know he wrote novels. Thanks for the tip.

  10. Patti - I didn't either until a few years ago. Turns out he had more than one iron in the fire...

  11. It definitely sounds like a good story, but I am not even going to think of it till I make a dent on my current backlog- most of which you are responsible for!

    Alan Banks, John Rebus, Harry Borche- you've introduced me to three compelling characters who alone can keep me busy for months. And there is Inspector Morse who I am yet to meet.

  12. thanks for this great review, Margot. I have not read (or maybe even heard of) this one, so must consider it. Parts of the plot sound a bit similar to Kind of Blue by M. Corwin (? name), in that the investigation (internal) is of a cop who may not have been as white as white. But other elements sound very different.

  13. Rayna - What can I say? Is it my fault there is so much terrific crime fiction out there? And now, who was it suggested I look at individual books?? ;-).

    It is a good story, really. I must admit that Scully is not as rich and well-developed a characters as Banks, Rebus and Bosch are - not in this first outing at any rate. But the premise is really interesting. Oh, and you will really like Morse, I think :-).

    Maxine - I'm embarrassed to say I haven't read Miles Corwin's Kind of Blue yet. I want to so much because of what I've heard about its similarity to Connelly's Harry Bosch stories. But I haven't read it yet. I will. In this one, there's certainly the element of the cop who isn't as white as white, and there are several of them. And it's very hard to tell who's on which side; that, too, is an interesting part of this novel...

  14. Margot, guilty as charged ;-)

    And would you belive it, for many years, I never read crime fiction, because I seriously believed that there were no decent crime books left to be read. Can't really blame me because what passes for crime fiction in India is thrillers like Colin Forbes, and how many of those can you really read before going mad?

    I justify my current addiction since I am making up for nearly two lost decades!!!! And the books I have read after meeting you have been spectacular.

  15. Rayna - LOL! And it's so interesting to think about what people consider to be "crime fiction." For some people, "crime fiction" consists of thrillers by James Patterson and that's it. For others, "mystery novels" are the cosy Hannah Swensen mysteries by Joanne Fluke. The truth is, crime fiction is such a broad genre that the fact is, I don't know how one can easily characterise it. Maybe that's why I have so much fun delving into it.

    And I am so glad to hear that you're enjoying the new-to-you crime fiction you're reading. That's the most important thing.

  16. Very nice summation and overview of The Tin Collectors. Admittedly, Scully does become a much more well-rounded and three-dimensional character as the series progresses, with the latest release (The Prostitute's Ball, 2010) being Cannell's best exploration of Scully to date. Although Cannell died this past September, there's one more Scully novel yet to be published.

    Also, I'd hesitate to recommend "At First Sight" immediately to fans of the Scully series -- it's a very different type of novel with a VERY different type of main character, and even Cannell admitted that most of his fans would either "love the book, or hate the book".

  17. Stephen Cannell was a very fascinating guy. We were so fortunate to have had him as a special guest at our Northern Colorado Writers conference last year. His mystery series is a good one.