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.