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Saturday, February 15, 2014

RUNAWAY HEART (audiobook) by Stephen J. Cannell

Great Characters, Giant Plot Holes

Published in 2003 by Sound Library (BBC Audiobooks America)
Read by Nick Sullivan
Duration: 11 hours, 47 minutes

Stephen J. Cannell (1941-2010) was best known as a television writer, producer and the creator of such classic shows as the A-Team, The Rockford Files and The Greatest American Hero. But, late in his career Cannell also wrote a lot of novels, mostly action-based mysteries (not all that surprising considering his history in television).

Runaway Heart is, in some ways, a typical Cannell story, but it does have some distinct differences. There are three main characters. The book starts with Herman Stockmire, an overweight, idealistic Los Angeles-based attorney with a bad heart (arrhythmia) who heads up a law firm called The Institute for Planetary Justice. Despite the big name, the Institute consists of Herman and his daughter Susan. Together, they go to court for all sorts of hopeless causes. They have sued mega-corporations, the CIA, the military and almost all for naught. 

Stephen J. Cannell (1941-2010)
The story starts with a lawsuit over genetically modified crops and how they are affecting Monarch butterflies. Herman fares poorly in court (again) and is fined $1 million for wasting everyone's time in court. Of course, Herman and the Institute have no way to pay this off. This is typical of Cannell's TV shows - he loves to write about likable, idealistic losers with real faults.

But, in this case, Herman Stockmire is onto something. He has a friend in San Francisco (from a previous case) who is a highly skilled hacker that succeeds in getting into the deep data files of this agribusiness corporation in order to steal their files and find evidence that they did not properly test their creations to see if they affected species like the Monarch. But, he also finds files associated with DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). This real-life agency helped create the internet, military drones and passive radar (and much, much more). He doesn't know what he is looking at for sure but it seems to him that this agribusiness company is doing some research on genetic modification for DARPA. So, this hacker steals that file as well and that's when things start to get out of control.

Within hours, the hacker is found dead, his body horribly shredded by someone's bare hands - someone with amazing brute strength. His corpse has been claimed from the morgue by the federal government and they are denying that they know anything about it.

Looking for a little help and some information, Susan Stockmire hires Jack Wirta, a former LAPD policeman who has just retired due to severe injuries to his back sustained in the infamous 1997 North Hollywood Bank Shootout. Jack's pain has caused him to become addicted to painkillers. Jack is also a very new Private Investigator - this is his first case and he has no idea what he's going to get into. 

There are a ton of interesting supporting characters throughout. I was kind of bugged by the over-the-top ultra-stereotypical portrayal of the man who operates the gay escort service down the hall from Wirta's new office, but as the book continues on his character displays an immense amount of character and physical bravery. He may be effeminate to the extreme but he knows how to "man up" when he needs to.

My favorite scene was probably the one where the men of a dying Indian nation have a council of war to determine what to do about illicit activities taking place on their reservation. They meet in a Denny's in one of those big corner booths and discuss over tuna salad sandwiches. Not what you expect from a Council of War if you grew up watching westerns like I did!

Nick Sullivan read this book. He is the winner of two Audiofile awards. I found his performance to be up and down. His characterization of Herman Stockmire was low key, but it was just too low key. Herman's bad heart and perpetual exhaustion should be part of the character, but his monotone delivery in court was so boring that I found it unlikely that he would actually perform so poorly in front of a jury. But, the other characters were well done, especially the hacker and the overly-effeminate proprietor of the gay escort service. 

The book is filled with strong characters but has a disjointed plot that is full of gaping holes and strange fits and starts. If that bothers you, this story is going to be torturous to you. For me, I overlooked the plot problems and just went with the story because of the characters. I am docking its final score by one star for those plot problems but that still leaves me with a score of 4 out of 5 stars.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: Runaway Heart by Stephen J. Cannell.

Reviewed on February 15, 2014.

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