A terrific shoot-'em-up
from an entertaining writer

''Vertical Coffin''
By Stephen J. Cannell
(St. Martin's Press, 334 pp., $24.95)

Buy at Amazon

Reviewed by John Orr
March 2004

The problem with ''Vertical Coffin'' by Stephen J. Cannell is sleep. Once I reached a certain point in this fast-paced police story I just did not want to put it down, which meant I crawled into the Mercury News a couple of days in a row on only three hours sleep.

But it was a fun couple of nights.

Cannell is an experienced entertainer, creator of more than 40 TV shows, including ''The Rockford Files,'' ''The A-Team'' and lots of others that may not have been intellectual over-achievers, but made for amusing television. He's also a prolific novelist. How he found time to marry and have a family is a mystery.

''Vertical Coffin'' gets its title from what police special weapons and tactics teams call doorways, because so many cops get killed trying to go through them.

Narrator and L.A.P.D. detective Shane Scully arrives on the scene of a barricaded shooter in Southern California, where he sees a friend, Sheriff's deputy Emo Rojas, ''Flat on his face, lying in the vertical coffin.''

The man inside is heavily armed, with automatic weapons and armor-piercing weapons, shooting up cop cars like they were cardboard, and enjoying the attention of all those Los Angeles TV news helicopters buzzing around.

While Shane is trying to get to his friend, a federal SWAT team shows up and lobs hot tear-gas grenades into the house, which promptly bursts into flame (remember that S.L.A. shootout a few decades ago?) and then explodes.

Shane drags Rojas out, but his friend is long dead, shot in the chest with an armor-piercing round when he broached the door.

Turns out the feds had reason to know there was armor-piercing ammo in that house, but rather than investigate themselves, were just waiting nearby while the Sheriff's Department investigated a complaint -- without knowing about what was waiting for them in that doomed tract home.

Before long, SWAT cops from other juristictions are getting killed in vertical coffins, and people start worrying about a war breaking out among the heavily armed cops from the L.A.P.D., the L.A. Sheriff's Department and agents of the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Department.

And it's pretty much up to Scully and some of his pals to sort out the mess, and get all the various departments to do such things as surrender their sniper rifles for ballistics tests -- like asking a hungry wolf to surrender a fresh rabbit.

This novel is firm and fully packed with issues, ideas and information. Motorcycle clubs, youth football, police academys, police politics. And, while the book is slick in its writing and rich in entertainment, the information and issues it raises are mostly realistic, and sometimes grim.

Scully himself is getting tired of being a cop. As this book opens he's just come from an investigation of a crack lab; the woman who was cooking the drugs had gotten so involved in her chemistry that she let her two small children starve to death. Does that sort of thing happen? Oh yeah. Does it lead to cop burn-out? Sure.

But, Scully soldiers on, dealing with the creepy criminals, the creepy political situation, barfights, domestic disturbances and many other issues, as this highly involving and entertaining book races along.

Hats off to Cannell. He knows his crime stuff and he can write a novel even better than his many successful TV shows.