John Marshall Tanner falls comfortably—perhaps too much so—within the tradition of the American private eye. Hardboiled yet guardedly sensitive, a man of culture who also knows his way around a mean street or two in his stomping ground of San Francisco, he tangles with rich and powerful foes whom he cannot really defeat and looks out for victims whom he cannot ultimately save. He’s a hero, in short, but not too much of one. World-weary and even somewhat lazy, Tanner has a job to do and he does it, all the while gliding on a stream of sardonic observation. He goes farther in pursuing truth and justice than duty demands of him, but not to an unseemly degree. In this outing, he must find out who wrote a novel that was delivered anonymously to a tony local publishing firm. What seems like a simply matter, and hardly a dangerous one, turns into a dense puzzle that involves at least one imperfectly buried scandal, an accusation of sexual abuse and an intimation of incest, and a homeless ex-convict who appears to have violence on his mind. Heading each chapter is an excerpt from “Homage to Hamurabi,” the book within a book that yields many of the clues that Tanner must follow. Greenleaf’s use of this material is the high point of his novel and also its chief flaw. The excerpts delight and entice; they give this tough-guy tale an attractive literary gloss. But Greenleaf handles the final revelation of who wrote “Hamurabi,” and how Tanner arrives at that knowledge, and what that knowledge may mean, in a lamentably huddled way.
STEPHEN GREENLEAF. Book Case (1991).