King Con, by Stephen J. Cannell — a book review

After reading the name of the author in the title of this post, you’re thinking: “I know that name. Where do I know Stephen J. Cannell from?”

Cannell was an American television producer, writer, and occasional actor. He created or co-created several dozen successful television series from the 1970s through the ’90s, including The Rockford Files, Baretta, The Greatest American Hero, The A-Team, Hunter, Wiseguy, 21 Jump Street, and The Commish. To name just a few. Plus, he wrote scripts for Adam-12, Columbo, and most of the classic television series you’ve watched over the decades.

Because he was an overachiever, Cannell turned his attention to writing novels in 1995. When he passed away in 2010, he had written eighteen novels—seven standalones and eleven in a series featuring LAPD detective Shane Scully.

And he did all of this while famously struggling with dyslexia, which he referred to as his “spelling problem.” Whenever I read an author bio like Cannell’s, I feel a great surge of pride in the accomplishments of another human being. I also feel normal things like jealousy and envy and amazement that someone could overcome personal obstacles such as his to be so prolific and accomplished. My own obstacles are of a more mundane variety and seem to be primarily rooted in laziness.

King Con was the third novel Cannell published, and the second I have read after his debut novel The Plan, a political thriller that no longer seems far-fetched.

Cannell knew how to tell an exciting, visual story, which stands to reason. Since the reader spends time in the characters’ heads, the story told in a novel-length piece of fiction doesn’t always translate as well to the screen. How many times have you watched a movie based upon a book, only to say: “The book was better.” Cannell chose to begin writing novels late in his career. His background in screenwriting gave him an innate sense of story structure, of the constant rising and falling action. He knew how to end a scene impactfully. Plenty of times while reading this novel, I found myself thinking: here’s where we break for a commercial or two.

In case I’m being too subtle in my hints, what I’m saying is that this would have made a good television movie. It’s fast-paced, with a lot of action, and the stakes are emotional as well as, at times, life-or-death. I say “television movie” because the story itself doesn’t immediately scream blockbuster potential. But, in the right hands, it could be a good theatrical release also. Car chases and huge explosions aren’t always necessary. Tarantino could pull it off, easily.

In the world of conmen, the best of the best is given the title “King Con.” As this story opens, the man with this title is Beano X. Bates, and he manages to use his considerable skills as a card cheat to take a lot of money from New Jersey crime boss Joseph Rina. Rina, of course, objects to that and proceeds to nearly beat Beano to death with a golf club. Joe Rina gives off a “dapper don” vibe in his Armani suits, and normally doesn’t get his manicured nails dirty, but the violent golf club scene shows that he has a capacity for violence that the reader won’t soon forget.

Beano doesn’t stick around for a trial. He checks himself out of the hospital and leaves beautiful prosecutor Victoria “Tricy Vicky” Hart without much of a case. She still has Carol Sesnick, who was an eyewitness to the beating, and Miss Sesnick is being protected by two state police guards. Unfortunately for Miss Sesnick, police protection isn’t enough. Joe’s less-intelligent and more-homocidal brother, Tommy “Two Times” Rina, kills Vicky’s witness and her two guards, tossing them into the bottom of an elevator shaft in a Trenton, NJ, apartment building.

These were the two story events that bring Beano X. Bates and Victoria Hart together. It turns out that Carol Sesnick was actually related to Beano, and she was claiming to be an eyewitness to help her cousin out. Beano’s motivation to get Rina is purely revenge. Not just for the golf club thing, but for killing Carol. Victoria’s career as a prosecutor is terminally damaged when Joe Rina gets to walk free, his case thrown out. She wants revenge as well. For Carol, more than just for her career. You can see how having a common enemy would draw these two together. They both have secondary reasons for wanting to destroy Rina, but the primary reason, for both, is justice for Carol Sesnick.

Cannell somehow managed to make Beano the con man sympathetic and likeable. He is a criminal, and not ashamed of this fact. He has a cute and impossibly well-trained pet, a terrier named Roger-the-Dodger, your typical TV dog. And the Bates family has branches all across the country, a ready network of shady people willing to bend over backwards to help the “King.” His plan for revenge is a convoluted and risky long con.

There are elements of The Sting and the countless heist movies out there in this novel. There is also a love story, of course. I’ll let you guess between which two characters. There are mini-victories and mini-disasters. Lives are endangered, including Roger-the-Dodger’s (he doesn’t die: I’m going to spoil that much to keep animal-lovers from fretting). The con used against the Rina brothers could have fallen apart at any of a dozen places. Just when everything looks darkest, however—

I’m not going to tell you what happens. I’ve already said this would have made a good television movie (still could), and they notoriously have happy endings, so you should feel free to make assumptions.

This 1998 novel still manages to seem fresh. It is well-written and easy to read. As you might expect, the dialogue crackles. It is not a screenplay disguised as a novel, but it wouldn’t be difficult to adapt the novel into a screenplay. Without budgetary constraints, Cannell could have gone much broader and louder with his story, but he opted instead to make the reader care about what happened to the characters. There is a considerable amount of violence and gunplay in this. I don’t want to give the impression that this is a Mamet play here. But, our focus is always on Beano and Victoria, and the people who orbit closest to them. And Roger-the-Dodger, of course.

In case you haven’t been reading between the lines, I liked this book a lot. It is superior entertainment. I can’t swear that all the stock market and oil business information imparted during the con are accurate, but I don’t really care. It seemed plausible and gave the story the ring of verisimilitude, which is all I really require. It’s also not what I’d take off the shelf if I wanted to read a novel with a lot of self-examination and deep-thinking going on. It’s fairly shallow and glitzy, with some impressive settings, and over-the-top, even stereotypal characters. Since my adopted home state is Arkansas, I started to take some umbrage at how the Arkansan branch of the Bates family were described. Let’s just say pickup trucks, Confederate flags and the suggestion of inbreeding were involved. But, while a bit broad and cartoonish, the characterization isn’t entirely invalid. While I’m not one of these types, I know a few who are, and not just here in Arkansas. Not me, I’ll say again.

Firewater’s Revenge-is-a-Dish-Best-Served-Con Report Card: A

This book may not change your life, but it will pass some time pleasurably.

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