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THRILLER TAKES READERS INTO THE STREETS

The Tin Collectors

By Stephen J. Cannell

St. Martin's Press

389 pages, $24.95

The ringing telephone woke up Detective Shane Scully, and the neon face of his digital clock delivered the bad news. It was 2:16 a.m.

Barbara Molar was on the line. Her husband, Ray "Steeltooth" Molar, Scully's former partner, was trying to kill her, taking batting practice on her head with his police nightstick.

Scully went to the scene, the former partners drew their handguns, and a pair of shots rang out in the middle of the night.

Detective Scully won, his 9mm slug exploding into Molar's brain.

Ray Molar took one uncertain step backward and sat on the edge of the bed. Even though his heart was probably still beating, Shane knew that his ex-partner was already dead. But the street monster sat down anyway, almost as if he needed a moment to consider what he should do next or where he should go, momentum and gravity making the decision for him, toppling him forward, thudding him hard, face first, onto the carpet.

Thus begins "The Tin Collectors," author Stephen J. Cannell's latest voyage into the grimy underbelly of crime and corruption, centered this time inside the Los Angeles Police Department.

It turns out that Molar was a beloved figure in the LAPD, and his death triggers departmental charges against Scully, sending him into the bowels of a nasty little corruption plot reaching the very top of this beleaguered department.

Cannell is a great story-teller, and the man who gave us the "Rockford Files" has turned up the cynicism a few notches.

This is police corruption at its zenith. You know, murder, blackmail, kidnapping, fraud, conspiracy, death-bed confessions -- all the usuals.

And all told with some of the same sassy, smart-alecky dialogue that used to tumble out of "Jimmy" Rockford's mouth.

But it's not the wise-guy attitude that makes this novel sing. Rather, it's Cannell's insights into police work.

Some examples:

Molar once told Scully that when you work undercover, choose an alias that sounds like your own name; that way, if somebody calls your assumed name, you'll react. So Shane Scully becomes Lane MacCully.

The "three-flush" rule. It takes two or three flushes to get rid of a toilet-bowl load. So even after drug dealers flush dope down the toilet, narcotics detectives often can find a few grams of coke remaining in the elbow and trap.

On domestic-abuse cases, patrol officers know to search the medicine cabinet for an over-the-counter makeup that hides bruises. When they find it, it's almost as good as a wife-beating confession.

That's great stuff and makes Cannell's far-fetched plot seem all the more authentic. The author also provides an eye-opening vocabulary lesson in police department lingo.

"Tin collectors" are internal-affairs officers going after their colleagues' badges. A "street divorce" is a domestic argument that ends in murder. "Choir practice" is an after-hours police drinking session.

The least satisfying part of this novel? A character named Chooch and a literary gimmick that provide an unfulfilling subplot about fathers and sons. It's a bit forced and outside Cannell's area of expertise.

But overall, this is a great read if you like the genre. The author takes the reader to the streets in a fresh and edgy story that provides a glimpse into the tensions that probably exist inside any big-city police department.

At one point, Scully is confronted in a parking garage by two cops who revered Molar.

"The two cops in front of him were jacked up on anger and out of control emotionally," Cannell writes. "In that moment, he had a flash of how it must feel to run up against enraged, violent cops in a desolate part of the city, with no witnesses and no way to prove what really happened."

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