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"Plan' needs direction

THE PLAN

By Stephen J. Cannell

Morrow, $23

Reviewed by Jean Heller

I have to be honest. It's hard to love a book that starts chapters with lines like this: "Dawn broke like a cheap wine cooler spreading an ugly red stain on the gray ocean."

Or descriptions like this, of an extremely talented and resourceful political strategist: "A. J. Teagarden had the political instincts of a German field marshal."

Maybe it's because I haven't known a lot of German field marshals, but political savvy isn't what I associate with the ones of whom I've read.

Stephen J. Cannell is a name you should recognize. You've seen it on your television screens at the end of more than 1,500 episodes of 35 of the most popular shows ever aired: The Rockford Files, Baa Baa Blacksheep, The A-Team, 21 Jump Street, Wise Guy, Hunter and The Commish among them.

As a writer/producer for television, Cannell has few equals.

As a novelist, he's a great television writer/producer.

But let's be fair. The Plan is Cannell's first effort. He could get better.

The plot wasn't an impossible idea to pull off.

A Mafia don buys a television network through an apparently legitimate front man, and after the don dies, his son decides to pursue his father's dream of bending the network's news coverage to elect a United States president who will find a way to repeal RICO, the federal anti-racketeering law.

The young don is Mickey Alo, and his appearance as described by Cannell should offend every American born of Sicilian blood who picks up the book. He's short, fat, greasy and without a single redeeming human emotion. So much for imaginative casting.

After Alo has his candidate, he sets up his election team. There's the aforementioned A. J. Teagarden, an altogether disagreeable slob with a brilliant political mind, who at one point suggests killing an innocent bystander for political benefit and a few paragraphs later feels horrible remorse when Alo actually approves the scheme.

There's the tall, handsome Ryan Bolt, Cannell's alter ego, who is tormented by the death of his young son and a dream shadow that haunts him. Bolt, a boyhood friend of Mickey's, is recruited to produce videos for the chosen candidate's big campaign.

There's Lucinda, Mickey's gorgeous sister, who falls in love with Ryan and teams with him to stop her brother's malevolence.

And there's Haze Richards, the governor of Rhode Island, Alo's chosen candidate.

The plan is to use Alo's big television network to pump up Richards' campaign and make him the Democratic nominee and then to elect him to the White House.

Will the plan work? Or will Ryan and Lucinda manage to thwart it while somehow eluding all the professional hired killers Mickey sends to find and destroy them?

Do you really care?

There are lots of problems with this story. First of all, there hardly is a single character in the book to like, including the protagonists, who are too simpering, too bland and too entirely outside the story line most of the time.

Second, the idea of the mob buying a network and bending its news coverage to suit criminal purpose isn't outrageous. Who's to say it hasn't happened already? But the rationale here _ to elect a president who will repeal RICO by waiting for Supreme Court justices to die or retire and replacing them with people sympathetic to eliminating the racketeering statute _ that is way far-fetched.

There's plenty of action and blood for those who like that sort of thing.

But there's not much here to love.

Jean Heller is the author of the mystery-thriller Maximum Impact and is an investigative reporter for the Times.

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