VIGILANTE, the final book in the Shane Scully series due to the untimely passing of Stephen J. Cannell in 2010, has the distinction of presenting one of the best opening paragraphs and one of the best closing paragraphs you are likely to encounter in a crime novel this year. Both earn that accolade for entirely different reasons: the first paragraph will intrigue you, suck you in and keep you reading, while the final paragraph… well, it says it all, in just a few words.
"VIGILANTE...has the distinction of presenting one of the best opening paragraphs and one of the best closing paragraphs you are likely to encounter in a crime novel this year."
Scully and his partner in law enforcement, Sumner “Hitch” Hitchens, are assigned to investigate a high-profile homicide. The deceased in question is Lita Mendez, a gang activist with ties to the notorious Evergreen crew. Mendez had been an impediment to effective law enforcement and a thorn in the side of the LAPD for years. Scully and Hitch do not lack for suspects when Mendez is found murdered in her apartment. Every man and woman in a blue uniform has a motive, not to mention a plethora of rival L.A. street gangs.
Scully and Hitch have a huge roadblock in their investigation, in the form of Nixon Nash. “Vigilante TV” is a hit reality show, and Nash is its host, solving crimes ahead of police departments while demonstrating the ineptitude of the investigating officers. Nash has embarrassed two police departments since his show has been on the air, and the LAPD is now in his sights. Scully isn’t happy, especially when Nash offers him a position on the program, coupled with a threat that Scully will be unhappy and embarrassed, or worse, if he doesn’t cooperate. There is something about Nash, and his apparent skill at investigation, that doesn’t quite sit right. Is Nash that good, or that lucky? And if he is neither, how does he manage to appear on the spot of crime scenes so quickly, with so much information, even though he has airtight alibis for the times when each murder is committed?
Scully begins working backward, conducting his own investigation into Nash’s background. When Nash begins to research a cold case that has been all but forgotten by the LAPD, it appears to have a link to the Mendez killing, which reaches into the higher levels of the police department. Yet Scully still isn’t entirely convinced that Nash is simply an extremely clever investigator. When Hitch comes up with a crucial clue, Scully sets an ingenious trap for Nash, one that will reveal whether he is good, bad, or lucky, but that may also put Scully and Hitch in grave danger.
Cannell’s background in television has been heavily utilized in VIGILANTE to demonstrate how reality TV programming can manipulate public perception. He gives readers an over-the-shoulder glimpse of the editing room and the director’s chair, while presenting a fascinating mystery that is more of a howdunit than a whodunit but that still asks a number of intriguing questions that keep the reader guessing from beginning to (almost the) end. VIGILANTE fulfills the promise of that great opening paragraph and leads perfectly to that superb ending. It’s unfortunate that the series needs to end, especially under such tragic circumstances, but we do have Cannell’s entire backlist --- not to mention the countless TV shows he created, written and produced --- to savor.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on December 9, 2011