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A crime saga, shot by shot

Michael Harris is a regular contributor to Book Review.

A “vertical coffin,” in SWAT-team parlance, is a doorway, a spot where police officers raiding a building are most vulnerable to gunfire. Several characters are killed in doorways in Stephen J. Cannell’s latest crime novel featuring LAPD detective Sgt. Shane Scully. The first is Deputy Emo Rojas, gunned down when he tries to arrest a man rumored to be stocking assault rifles and military explosives in a tract house in Agoura Hills. Teams from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives besiege the house, which burns down, leaving a charred corpse whose DNA matches the suspect’s.

The Los Angeles Police Department isn’t involved in the case, but Scully, who rides with Rojas in a law enforcement motorcycle club, the Iron Pigs, witnesses the shootout and tries in vain to save his friend. A feud develops between the feds and the deputies, who feel Rojas wasn’t sufficiently warned of the danger. Then a member of each agency’s SWAT team is found shot dead in a vertical coffin. The police agencies blame each other, and open war threatens. The neutral LAPD is called in to investigate. Scully is given the job by his wife, Alexa, an LAPD division commander who is pressured in turn by the police chief and the mayor.

Cannell has written large-scale thrillers (“King Con,” “Riding the Snake,” “The Devil’s Workshop”) as well as scripts for TV shows such as “The Rockford Files” and “The Commish.” The Scully novels (“The Tin Collectors,” “The Viking Funeral”) are modest efforts that show Cannell in complete control of his material. We learn a lot, as we read “Vertical Coffin,” about rock climbing, fingerprint analysis, how to scope a crime scene and even how to coach a Pop Warner football team. Cinematic moments begin with the prologue -- the Iron Pigs on their Harleys rumbling through Malibu -- and end with a machine-gun duel on dune buggies racing through a Marine Corps bombing range in the Mojave Desert as jets scream in to drop live ordnance.

Though the acronyms fly as thick and fast as bullets and the smell of burning testosterone lingers, Scully is a likable, even sensitive, hero. An orphan who grew up armored against life’s disappointments, he finds himself with a wife and an adoptive teenage son, Chooch, who want him to open up emotionally. The trouble is, he says, “the more vulnerable I become the happier I am personally, but the more inept I feel as a cop.”

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Friends’ deaths haunt Scully, as do the contradictions of the job. He remembers being spit on by an old African American woman whose three grandchildren had been killed by police. “If somebody had tried to mug her, I was prepared to risk my life to stop it,” Scully thinks, but he understands why she hates him, even if there is “a valid reason or a legal justification” for the shootings. “We were not Blue Knights to some of these citizens, but a gang in blue -- thugs with life-and-death power.... It was the total collapse of an idea I once treasured.”

After the Rodney King case and the Rampart scandal, the last thing Los Angeles needs is for police officers to pick one another off with high-tech sniper rifles. Scully’s superiors, including Alexa, want him to concentrate on damage control; they feel he’s wasting time by returning to the original crime scene -- the burned-out house in Agoura Hills. But something about it doesn’t seem right to Scully, who investigates with the unwelcome help of Jo Brickhouse, an outspoken lesbian sheriff’s deputy.

Scully and Brickhouse argue so much at the beginning that we know they’ll end up as friends. Despite Scully’s ruminations about social and existential issues, we’re safely in the realm of entertainment here. The villain in “Vertical Coffin” is a standard psychopath, for whom no sympathy need be spared. The good guys get lucky breaks -- a half-mad hermit who lives on the bombing range happens to be a former Vietnam War medic with a well-stocked first-aid kit. The villain, except at point-blank range, is a lousy shot. Still, as entertainment goes, this is expert stuff, with sharp and often funny dialogue, tight pacing and light moments with Chooch to balance the darker scenes -- the work of a pro who hasn’t forgotten any of his tricks.


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