From Philip Marlowe to Lew Archer and beyond, fictional private eyes have never been a very ebullient bunch. But John Marshall Tanner might be the saddest sack of them all. Ensconced in his bachelor pad on San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill, he sees only clouds of fog, and none of them has a silver lining. “Time settled over me like a shawl,” he observes at one typical point. “Elsewhere in the city people were dining and dancing, drinking and laughing, touching and talking, exchanging the bits of themselves that is the currency of love and friendship. I wasn’t doing any of those things; I was all by myself.” His work gives him plenty to frown about, too. A new client, the millionaire industrialist Max Kottle, wants Tanner to track down his estranged son before cancer finally tracks him down. To find the son, a 1960s-era radical who has gone underground, Tanner must consort with various and tawdry associates of the missing man: an old girlfriend, now reduced to working in a North Beach massage parlor; an aging Beat poet, who has retreated from the world almost as eagerly as it has retreated from him; the son’s oversexed mother, who keeps a gigolo in her Sausalito home. A kidnapping, hints of corporate skullduggery, and a second missing-person case—it involves a wayward journalist, and it ends up dovetailing (surprise, surprise) with the Kottle affair—are the elements that round out this dour tale.
Although the Tanner persona lacks zest, the Tanner prose style fairly brims with it. Greenleaf’s hero-narrator lays on the word play good and thick, and fortunately the writing is good as often as it is thick. Of the gigolo, Tanner notes, “The cleft in his chin could have lodged a tribe of Hopis.” The action here takes place during the week before Christmas in 1979, and the sour mood of that era (evoked through references to “the Ayatollah” and to long lines at the gas pump) helps to explain the narrator’s own curdled outlook. “It’s been a lost decade for all of us,” Tanner says to a fellow damaged soul. “No one did anything right in the seventies.”
[ADDENDUM: Greenleaf appears to have become a missing person himself—or, at any rate, a missing author. At a time when even the most recondite of long-dead writers seem to have Wikipedia pages devoted them, Greenleaf has none. He doesn’t have his own Web site, either. (Or, if he does, Google apparently doesn’t know about it.) A publishing company has posted an author page for him on its site, but the page is nearly devoid of content, consisting only of announcements that one or another of his titles “is now available in eBook.” These days, for a writer to possess such a meager Web presence is tantamount to having no presence at all. The most substantive online treatment of him that I could find from recent years comes in a 2005 interview. It’s an excellent, extended discussion that covers both Greenleaf’s career and that of John Marshall Tanner, and it touches on the end of the publishing career that they shared:
My retirement was more forced than elected. … Luckily I was able to write Ellipsis as the last chapter in the saga, and allow its subtext to suggest the reason my series had come to an end. I don’t see any need (or much demand) for the Tanner series to continue. …
I don’t blame my own “ellipsis” on the publishing industry. Every author thinks more could have been done to promote him and his work, but the fact is, Tanner was around long enough for anyone interested in the genre to have taken a run at him. I hear the phrase “I read one of your books once” far too often for comfort (it’s much more damning than “I’ve never heard of you”), indicating that Tanner struck a chord with comparatively few readers.
Like Death Bed, it’s a sad story, told with no little sadness.]