The Barnes & Noble Review
Los Angeles has always been a fertile setting for some of humanity's greatest stories of evil, from the dark novels of James Ellroy to the truly noir tales of Raymond Chandler. Now bestselling author Stephen J. Cannell ponders the seamy side of the City of Angels with his new pressure cooker, Riding the Snake. Cannell, who is known mainly as the creator-writer of a ton of television dramas, including "The A-Team," "Hunter," and "The Rockford Files," is also making a name for himself in thriller fiction with such bestsellers as King Con, The Final Victim, and The Plan already under his belt. Riding the Snake is a ten-pointer on the Richter scale that twists, turns, and slides like a wily and venomous rattler.
Even though it's definitely an L.A. book, Riding the Snake also delves into international terror. The story opens in China with Willy Wo Lap Ling, a dreaded leader of Hong Kong's notorious criminal Triad. Willy needs two new kidneys badly; without them he will surely die. In an attempt to buy a few more years, he makes a deal with the devil he'll resume his nefarious activities in the West in exchange for the much-needed organ transplant. Willy is in charge of undermining Western society by running drugs and guns and encouraging endemic poverty through the welfare state of the U.S.; his goal just may be to bring President Clinton and the American government to its knees.
The brutality of Cannell's story hits us square in the face when we see that Willy's kidney transplant comes from anunwillingstudent dissident in Beijing. Rejuvenated after the operation, Willy leaves for the States on his own twisted sacred mission on behalf of the dark Triad.
Meanwhile, Wheeler Cassidy is having a hell of a life, soaking it up among the rich and famous of Bel Air. Handsome, in his late 30s, a bit of a swordsman (but always with someone else's wife), he has it all: charm, looks, money, and a rather unattractive alcoholic streak. The trust-fund, black-sheep baby of a megarich family, his idea of fun is a morning on the golf course and an afternoon with a bottle of his favorite booze in one hand and a country-club beauty in the other. But when his younger brother, Prescott, dies, Wheeler's world comes crashing down around him.
Prescott was the real achiever in the family and became a big-shot lawyer who did everything right, apparently. Even when he was dying, he said his proper good-byes and left one last memo for his secretary, Angie Wong, to transcribe. When Wheeler's mother bemoans the loss of her favorite son, Wheeler himself wonders why Pres, who was near-perfect, died of a heart attack while he, the bad seed, is allowed to continue living in self-indulgent limbo.
But when Wheeler heads down to the middle-class suburb of Torrance to check on Angie Wong, he finds a real horror show. Angie has been murdered in what can only be politely called the worst series of paper cuts in history. Even worse than her torturous death is something that will later be found someone planted a message within her body.
This is where Cannell's story really takes off, for the most extraordinary and interesting cop in the history of the LAPD just happens to be working this murder case. Her name is Tanisha "Tisha" Williams, a young woman who has lifted herself out of gangland Los Angeles after watching rival gangs kill her six-year-old sister. Since that tragic day, Tisha excelled in her major (criminology) and now excels on the police force, mostly because she truly believes in upholding the law. Unfortunately, the LAPD around her is pretty racist and misogynistic, so nothing has come easy for Tisha. Still, in staking out the Asian neighborhoods as her main territory, Tisha has boned up on Chinese culture and the nuances between it and other Asian groups. Based on her understanding of Far Eastern gangs, she's fairly sure that the murder of Angie Wong is anything but random Tisha recognizes all the markings of an execution, probably by Triad.
As Tisha and Wheeler battle their own inner demons, they must come together to solve the mystery surrounding Prescott Cassidy's death and life. The story escalates to a nail-biting climax that explodes with suspense and terror.
Cannell has written a wild action story, using the appealing tough-guy prose he's best known for in television writing. Riding the Snake is a fast-paced, lean thriller that races to a shocking finish. Recommended!
Douglas Clegg is the author of numerous horror and suspense novels, including The Halloween Man and Bad Karma, written under his pseudonym, Andrew Harper. His recent Bram Stoker-nominated short story, "I am Infinite, I Contain Multitudes," can be found in the anthology The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror: Volume 11.
Read an Excerpt
The locker room at the exclusive Westridge Country Club was Wheeler Cassidy's "spot."He arrived every morning around ten and flopped down on the tan leather sofa, then browsed the L.A. Times. Of late, he had just been scanning the front page, then going directly to sports, reading the racing results and ball scores. The rest of the paper failed to interest him. He used to read it cover to cover, but now the pointless articles on the Metro page about police brutality or campaign finance abuses didn't concern him anymore. He had been vaguely aware of the fact that his world had been narrowing but had managed to flush those thoughts with Scotch shooters.
The beige couch was also good because it was in front of the picture window that overlooked the tennis courts, which afforded him a prized spear-fishing spot. He could either tag up on a new member's wife coming back from her tennis lesson or pick up a golf game with some middle-aged walk-over. By one P.M., he had usually moved from the comfortable On-Deck Circle to Home Plate, which was the last stool at the bar in the grill. From there, he would swing lazily at the slow curves that wandered past in sexy tennis skirts.
Wheeler was thirty-seven, tall and good-looking in a careless, bad boy sort of way that women of all ages seemed irresistibly drawn to. His curly black hair hung loosely on his forehead. His square jaw and white teeth were babe-magnets, although his once rock-hard abs were beginning to take on some extra padding and his hands were starting to shake at eleven each morning. Once he got his first Scotch shooter Blended Vat 69 they calmed down.
Wheeler had notturned out the way he was supposed to. He had not lived up to his father's expectations. His first spectacular failure had been sixteen years ago when they'd thrown him out of the University of Southern California for being drunk and disorderly, and according to one University Regent, "an unredeemable scholastic project." The final incident that propelled his expulsion was a fist fight he'd gotten into at Julie's Bar after the S.C. Stanford game. He had endured three Bay area assholes for almost two hours before slipping his thousand-dollar Cartier watch off his left wrist and putting the misplaced Stanford alumni in the U.S.C. Trauma Ward. Wheeler had a solid punch and, even drunk, he could still bang one off you. His left hook was lethal. He preferred talking to hitting, but occasionally had to "step outside" with somebody. Fighting was a necessary skill when you were periscoping other people's women.
Wheeler Cassidy had been famous at U.S.C. He was that guy that everybody talked about... the tuna fisherman's tuna fisherman. The stunts he'd pulled were legendary: like jumping off the roof of the Tri-Delt House on a dare or driving his VW into the L.A. Coliseum at half-time during the U.C.L.A. game. On the side of his paintbrushed-cardinal-and-gold VW Rabbit, he had written, "Have one on me, Bruins." Then he sprayed the U.C.L.A. rooting section with warm beer from a supercharged keg. He'd been arrested six times for various violations and pranks before finally being expelled. His exploits were written up in the Cardinal and Gold, the student paper, at least once a month during his colorful three-year academic career, but that was a long time ago. Now he was what some people would call a country club burn. The Westridge Country Club in Bel Air, California, was his haunt.
The W. C. C. had all kinds of strict membership requirements: Your family and ethnic background had to be acceptable; you needed to be well placed in society; and no members of the entertainment community were ever accepted. Wheeler got in on a junior membership when he turned twenty-one because his father, Wheeler Cassidy, Sr., had been a longtime member.
However, Wheeler Jr. was currently up before the W.C.C. disciplinary committee. They were trying to decide whether to kick him out for a one-nighter he'd had with the beautiful but restless wife of a senior member who was also, unfortunately, head of the club's rules committee. The affair had resulted in the couple's messy divorce. It was the memory of Wheeler's late father that so far had stayed the axe, but this time it looked like his expulsion from the club was inevitable.
Wheeler Sr. had been an investment broker and portfolio analyst who had made it big, eventually opening his own brokerage firm. Wheeler Sr. had died last year, taking with him Wheeler Jr.'s sole reason for being. There was something exhilarating about being the bad seed son of a domineering, humorless father that lost its thrill when Dear Ol' Dad hit Boot Hill. Now all of Wheeler's pranks seemed more desperate than funny. His father's anger had always been the rimshot that saved the joke.
Wheeler started drinking more after his father died, and now, in the morning when he got up, his head was dull as racial humor. His eyes were filled with grain, his stomach always on the edge of revolt. He was approaching middle age and, apart from three years at U.S.C. and another two in the Marines, he'd never accomplished anything.
He'd joined the Marine Corps only to fend off his father's threat that he would lose his inheritance for being chucked out of college. Then, just when it looked like he'd straightened out, being accepted for elite Special Forces training, he'd been dishonorably discharged from his unit for fornicating with his Commanding Officer's wife. Since then, he had never finished anything. except for hundreds upon hundreds of bottles of blended Scotch. He'd once read about an old eccentric in the desert who had built a house out of empty beer bottles. If Wheeler had had any architectural ambition, his empties could have built a small city.