Saturday, October 16, 2004

DEATH BED (The John Marshall Tanner Series)

I've really fallen in love with Stephen Greenleaf's John Marshall Tanner private eye series. Back in 1980, The New Republic called Greenleaf "The best successor to the Raymond Chandler-Ross MacDonald tradition to come along in a decade." I've now read three of his metaphor-rich, carefully constructed mysteries, with their idiosyncratic but very real characters, and I tend to agree. My favorite thus far is Death Bed, which I think is the second in the series. It involves the internal terrorism of the 1960s and 1970s (from the point of view of the authorities), a dying rich man looking for his son, and a host of other vivid characters. Tanner, a former lawyer, is a pragmatic man who keeps his word and lives the inevitably lonely life of a private eye. His apartment "absorbs" him "like a wet sponge." "If a bomb dropped in the neighborhood it wouldn't kill anyone I had spoken to twice." Set in San Francisco, the novels display a nice eye for the detail of the city, along with the necessary generic cityscapes that, done well, enhance the best noir detective novels.

Dawn was only a prediction. The city seemed broken into pieces, each clump of light separated from all the other clumps of light by black walls of apprehension and disappointment. The few night people I encountered stared at me with the frankness of kittens at the first sight of one of their own. But after the first glance, the night people turned away. I had a purpose, so I was out of place in the early morning, a geometric stripe through the splashy formlessness of the predawn city.

Sometimes Greenleaf overdoes it on the metaphors, but I like even this aspect of his novels. There's a little less adherence to the belief in practical prose in his books, but he never succumbs to purple prose. The dialogue is always terse, economical, and offsets the moments of introspection. Even better, Greenleaf's plots coil in on themselves--answers don't come out of the blue, but out of what you've already read and misinterpreted.


(Evil Monkey: "Jeff--it's amazing you can remain so calm, adding entries to your blog. Aren't you nervous about those possible upcoming book deals?" Jeff: "Sick to my stomach, actually." Evil Monkey: "Well, I admire your fortitude." Jeff: "It's the waiting that gets to me more than anything else." Evil Monkey: "I'm sure it will work out. Isn't some of it in place already?" Jeff: "Yeah, sure, a piece of it. But I'm superstitious. Until the dust settles and I Know All, I'm keeping my mouth shut." Evil Monkey: "Yeah--I know what you mean. I hate those blog entries you see sometimes from writers, like, 'Something good is going to happen soon. Something cool. But I can't tell you about it now.' And then it all evaporates somewhere in the Bullshit Zone." Jeff: "Yeah--I hate those, too. BTW--I think I found some prosthetic limbs for you. Would that be useful?" Evil Monkey: "Sure. That'd be nice. It ain't gonna make me any less evil, though.")


At 2:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jeff, this sounds like interesting stuff, I shall have to read some of this. Ta for the recommendation.

Along similar-but-different lines, I can't remember, have I recommended Ken Bruen to you for gritty noir novels? If not, consider it done now. Well worth checking out.



At 3:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Iain: I love Ken Bruen! Excellent stuff. I've got to pick up his latest--the Tinker, or something like that.


At 5:51 AM, Blogger Rajan said...


At Worldcon you mentioned a few other mystery authors that you'd been reading, but I forgot all the names. Can you mention a few of them again?


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