Saturday, November 05, 2011

Twin Trouble

After many years as a radio actor and narrator (he played Marshal Matt Dillon on the GUNSMOKE radio series), occasional TV guest star, prolific television producer and director, and heavy in westerns and adventure films (a terrific exception is his turn as a good-guy sheriff opposite Anthony Quinn in THE WAY BACK), William Conrad became an unlikely leading man when he took the role of private eye Frank Cannon in 1971.

At age 51, Conrad dominated CBS' CANNON, both physically (he was under six feet tall and weighed around 300 pounds) and by force of his powerful screen presence (as the series' only regular cast member, he was in almost every scene). For 121 episodes, Cannon chased, shot, and bullied kidnappers, crooks, and killers across the CBS landscape, and Conrad handled the physical aspects of the role with surprising aplomb.

CANNON's five-season run inspired three tie-in paperbacks, the first of which, MURDER BY GEMINI, was published by Lancer in 1971. I'm guessing author Richard Gallagher had never seen the series, which premiered in the fall of that year. Not only is Cannon out of character at times, but Gallagher also saddles him with a young sidekick, which Cannon never had on the series (most likely against CBS' desires).

At least Gallagher gets the assistant out of the way early and gets to the plot, which draws Cannon away from Los Angeles to bucolic Custer County, Wyoming. A young woman, Veronica Gleason, watches her older husband Robert, a conservationist, gunned down in the desert by a poacher with a rifle. Being a small county where everybody knows everybody else, it wouldn't seem much of a problem for Veronica to identify the killer. Except for the fact that he's one of two identical twins: James or John Cape.

Nobody in Custer, even the locals who have known the Cape brothers all their lives, have ever had any luck differentiating the two, which puts crusty sheriff Cyrus Bateman in a real bind. If neither Cape admits to being the killer, there's no way to try one of them without a heavy dose of reasonable doubt attaching itself to the trial. And that's when ace detective Frank Cannon is summoned.

As a 160-page mystery, MURDER BY GEMINI has a clever premise, but Gallagher isn't sure what to do with it. The novel is padded by conversations between Cannon and Bateman that have little to do with the case at hand, but don't offer much in terms of characterization either. Really, the novel has little to say about Cannon and what makes him tick. Perhaps Gallagher believed fans of the TV show already knew everything they needed to.

The book is missing the intellectualism and the culinary expertise of Conrad's Cannon, but adds a couple of decent chases in their stead. MURDER BY GEMINI isn't heady reading, but there are worse ways to kill three hours on the couch.


R.A.M.'67 said...

One of my favorite paperbacks based on a TV show was the first original Star Trek novel Spock Must Die! by James Blish (who previously had adapted ST episodes into story form). The major flaw in this story? McCoy was constantly referred to by Kirk as "Doc", rather than "Bones"!!

Have you the other Cannon books? If so, did the writing improve any?

Marty McKee said...

Poke around. You may find a SPOCK MUST DIE review here.

I haven't read the other CANNON books.