Stephen Greenleaf Analysis


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The John Marshall Tanner novels by Stephen Greenleaf have been frequently recognized as extending the California hard-boiled private eye tradition established by Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald. Initially the influence of Chandler and particularly Macdonald was unmistakable. Gradually, however, Greenleaf developed his own style, Tanner became his own man, and several of the novels succeeded in transcending genre conventions to engage important social concerns of the 1980’s and 1990’s.

Like Greenleaf, Tanner is a former attorney, and most of his cases involve legal as well as ethical issues. There is usually a prominent lawyer among the chief suspects in each criminal case investigated by Tanner. Greenleaf’s two nonseries novels also directly involve courtroom dramas. The protagonist of The Ditto List (1985) is a male divorce lawyer who represents only women. Impact (1989) concerns a personal injury trial after an airplane crash.

Greenleaf’s plots are very well crafted, often involving multiple lines of action and different time frames as they delve into the colorfully messy lives of families across generational lines. He has even experimented with alternatives to murder as the moral and emotional catalyst for his mystery plots. In Toll Call, for example, the narrative centers around sexual harassment involving Tanner’s secretary; when that situation is resolved, another dealing with kidnapping takes over as the focus of Tanner’s detection. As always, these crimes have their genesis in some past trauma, and as Greenleaf once told an interviewer, his principal concern is “less on who done it than on why it was done.” The result is characterization in remarkable depth.

Stephen Greenleaf Bibliography

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Bedell, Jeanne F. “Interdependent Mazes: The Detective Novels of Stephen Greenleaf.” Clues: A Journal of Detection 10, no. 1 (Spring/Summer, 1989): 51-62. The only scholarly analysis of the Tanner series (through 1987’s Toll Call), finding Greenleaf’s early efforts derivative of Ross Macdonald but his later ones original and distinctive in voice and theme.

Greenleaf, Stephen. “Detective Novel Writing: The Hows and the Whys.” The Writer 106, no. 12 (December, 1993): 11-14. The author explains his methods of writing detective novels and how Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer series influenced him.

Greenleaf, Stephen. Interview by Thomas Chastain. The Armchair Detective 15, no. 4 (1982): 346-349. The earliest interview of the author, after only three of the Tanner novels had appeared. Useful information about Greenleaf’s background, influences on his work, and his methods of composition.

Greenleaf, Stephen. “The John Marshall Tanner Novels.” Mystery Readers International 11, no. 2 (Summer, 1995): 28-29. Greenleaf discusses his John Marshall Tanner series, which at the time consisted of eleven books. He describes how he chose his setting as well as the origins of the character’s name.

Lynskey, Ed. “Stephen Greenleaf: Creator of California’s Next Great Private Eye.” 2005. http://www An overview and summary of all fourteen Tanner novels, along with quotations from book reviews and a useful bibliography.

Murphy, Stephen M. “Stephen Greenleaf.” Their Word Is Law: Bestselling Lawyer-Novelists Talk About Their Craft, edited by Stephen M. Murphy. New York: Berkeley Books, 2002. A collection of interviews. Greenleaf’s interview, which took place in 1991, is an interesting mid-career look at how the author drew on his experience of the legal profession and how the series has matured over the years.