Stephen Greenleaf Essay - Critical Essays


Stephen Greenleaf did not begin his writing career until the age of thirty-four, after two years in the military and nearly six as a practicing lawyer. Therefore he had a ready store of experience on which to draw as a writer. In particular, his career in the law and his family background—his father and both grandfathers had also been attorneys—created a strong awareness of the legal profession’s demands and shortcomings as well as its strategic place in American society. In one way or another, this awareness informs every book he has written.

The title character of the Tanner series was named after John Marshall, the longest-serving chief justice in the history of the Supreme Court. Before becoming a private investigator, Tanner was a practicing attorney for some five years, until his suspension for contempt of court. He spent six months in jail rather than apologize to the corrupt judge, an experience that sensitized him to another side of the legal system and to its victims.

Greenleaf’s knowledge of the law gives a particular edge to his engagement with social issues. Reviewers have often noted the remarkable acuity with which his novels have examined such themes as radical politics, the legal insanity defense, corporate chicanery, libel in works of fiction, surrogate motherhood, racism, the AIDS epidemic, repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse, police brutality and corruption, and the plight of illegal immigrant farmworkers. In Greenleaf’s hands these issues invariably raise complex legal and ethical questions that are credibly made to serve as the impetus for plot developments by providing a variety of suspects, victims, alibis, hidden identities, and the rest of the apparatus needed for Tanner’s investigations to progress. At the same time, by giving the issues concrete human embodiment, his novels elicit compassion and understanding in a way that mere ratiocination or polemic could not.

As is often the case with hard-boiled noir fiction, setting assumes a large importance in the Tanner novels. Most are set in San Francisco and environs, making available the full range of material and tonal assets needed in a private eye series: extremes of privilege and deprivation, racial and cultural diversity and antagonism, cunning as well as brutal criminal activity, and a general atmosphere evocative of modern alienation and angst. The proximity of the swells of Nob Hill to the hells of the Tenderloin section and of nearby exotic locales like Monterey and Berkeley are reminders that the American dream remains elusive even in a place where its rewards are gaudily on display.

Tanner narrates the novels in the first person, and his voice, though not flashy, is a clear and effective instrument for interpreting his world. Well read, conversant with jazz, modern art, and professional sports, he is observant and attentive, especially to pretension and material excess, frequently the targets of his irony, and to suffering and deprivation, which elicit his empathy.

Grave Error

Greenleaf has admitted that when he began the series he hoped to “write about the Bay Area in the way Ross Macdonald wrote about Southern California.” This is especially evident in his first novel, Grave Error, in which crimes committed in the past provide...

(The entire section is 1358 words.)