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.
Category Archives: Hard-Boiled
Brock “the Rock” Callahan, a gumshoe who operates outs of West Hollywood, muses to himself: “I’m not a private eye. … I’m a private I. I am what I am and it hasn’t cost me too much yet, except for the lump on the head, the sore ribs, the puffed lip. And, of course, the bad knee.” The bad knee he got from his brief, unillustrious career as a guard for the Los Angeles Rams. The lump on the head, along with the damaged ribs and lip, he got from working his latest case, which involves the murder of the Rams’ new star quarterback, a Beverly Hills–bred golden boy named Johnny Quirk—a case that has Callahan trading blows with slick gamblers and their henchmen, trading barbs with obstreperous cops, and trading sharp looks with would-be starlets. The muscular yet beleaguered sense of self, meanwhile, is something that Callahan gets from the ethos of his time. The 1950s were an Age of Conformity, or so pundits of the era said, and weaving one’s way around the blocking and tackling of other selves was a tough job, even for an old football pro. Callahan, who also narrates this very compact tale, makes most of the right moves; he licks the bad guys and preserves his sensitive soul, too. He also proves himself to be at once a man’s man and an able protector of women. (He’s an arrow from Lew Archer’s quiver, rather than a misogynistic tool like Mike Hammer.) In a case that pivots around addled young swains and the damsels they love, that’s a nice pair of qualities to have.
[ADDENDUM: Link-wise, I couldn’t find much quality writing on the Web either about this book or about the its series detective, but there are a few meaty online articles about William Campbell Gault. In the last of those three linked pieces, for example, Bill Pronzini refers to Gault as “a writer of the old school, a consummate professional throughout a distinguished career that spanned more than half a century.” According to Pronzini, Gault’s publishing career lasted from 1936 to 1995—in other words, from the pulp-magazine era to the dawn of the Internet.]
The actual fighting of the Second World War rages far, far away from the snowbound country house of Dr. Duncan Chandler, in eastern Pennsylvania. Yet the fate of the American war effort may well hinge on what transpires there. Chandler, a cryptologist as well as a physician, is close to creating an undecipherable code system for the U.S. government, and he has lured a young math whiz, Rigby Webb, to help him complete the task. Also at the Chandler estate are a slew of guests, any one of whom might be an Axis agent. Marital troubles between the doctor and his wife, and a malpractice suit against him, further thicken the plot. Soon after a blizzard seals off the house from most outside contact, a man trudges through the snow to deliver a message—and gets shot to death from a second-floor window as he approaches the dwelling. Was he bringing news of an Axis spy’s identity? And what happened to the rifle used to kill him? The brash and brilliant Webb takes a turn as a detective, striving to crack the murder case even as he works to crack Chandler’s code to end all codes. Davis plants a few neat clues for Webb to follow, but the main emphasis here is on wartime atmospherics and on the suspense that arises when people are cooped up with an unknown killer who will surely strike again.
[ADDENDUM: The vastness of the Internet contains surprisingly little information about Davis, and nothing at all (as far as I can discern) about this novel. There’s a smattering of Web pages that treat his voluminous work for the detective and hero pulps of the 1930s. Otherwise, the digital pickings are slim. Davis was a skilled and versatile fictioneer who merits recognition as mystery writer in the classic American vein. At his blog Pretty Sinister, John recently posted a review of one of the many mainstream detective puzzles that Davis spun, “Coffins for Three” (1938). In a comment on that post, I said about “Deep Lies the Dead”: “It’s a straight country-house mystery, with a bit of wartime espionage thrown in to add a bit of contemporary spice, and from reading it I would never have guessed that Davis had been a pulp writer.”]
A promising start and a satisfying finish bracket an often tedious merry-go-round of comings and goings, all of them occurring in and around Las Cruces, California. That’s where private eye Lew Archer, serving in his occasional role as a wandering bard of crime and social dysfunction, veers into one of his earliest recorded cases. Traveling from LA to Sacramento, he spots a man in distress on the side of the road. His efforts to help the fellow, a long-haul driver with a fresh gunshot wound and a truck full of liquor, entangle Archer in nasty web of local corruption, marital discord, and murder—plenty of murder. The message, told in Archer’s lyrically jaded voice, appears to be that those idyllic-seeming communities just off the main highway are no less troubled than the big, bad cities where gumshoes like Archer usually roam. Once Archer has loosened every last knot of intrigue, what emerges is an ingeniously concealed and morally resonant story, one whose roots lie in an ill-fated parent-child relationship. What precedes that moment of revelation, however, is a garish blur of characters and situations. The people of Las Cruces are all desperate and cheap, undisciplined and oversexed. In scene after scene, they cross words with Archer or cop an attitude with him; all too frequently, they trade blows with him. It all makes for a very contrived form of storytelling, in which piling up one-damned-thing-after-another takes the place of real narrative progression. In later work, Macdonald would tell his patented tale of dark family romance with a lighter, surer touch.
This over-clever, rapid-fire tale bears the marks of the author’s tutelege both in the law and in pulp-magazine writing. It pivots around Donald Lam, a scrawny would-be lawyer who had fallen on hard times. No sooner does Lam find work as an operative in the Bertha Cool Detective Agency than he’s thrust into a rollicking adventure that culminates in his narrow escape from a homicide rap. The adventure begins innocuously enough, with an assignment from Cool—his huge and hugely eccentric boss—to serve divorce papers on the husband of a new client. But the case immediately heats up. In the process of completing his ostensibly mundane task, Lam impersonates a bellboy, falls in love, buys a stolen gun that turns up later as a murder weapon, and entangles himself with a gang of racketeers who kidnap him and give his dimunitive frame a thorough going-over. Not bad for his first day on the job. On his second and third days, he tops that set of exploits by unraveling a knotty murder problem and by then tying the police of two states in knots as he proves that it’s legally possible to get away with murder. Lam narrates the story, and Erle Stanley Gardner, the author behind the A.A. Fair pseudonym, gives him a clean and witty voice that has echoes of Archie Goodwin in it. Yet the Fair style, true to its pulp origins, is more glib than fresh. Similarly, although Gardner excels at planting ingenious clues, his plotting is complex without being tight. Like the beating that Lam receives, and from which he recovers with astounding ease, this first Lam and Cool novel comes on strong but leaves no lasting impact.
Every fictional private eye reflects a private fantasy—that of the writer, who projects onto his intrepid gumshoe all of the attributes and attitudes that he prizes in himself, along with a slew of heroic qualities that he can only wish upon himself. Which is fine, as far as it goes: All writing is part therapy. But before taking his fantasy public, a private-eye writer does well to armor it with a keen, compelling voice and with a commitment to storytelling that’s equal to his hero’s commitment to crime-fighting. Crais falters on both counts. He gives to his sleuth and narrator, Elvis Cole, a coyly sarcastic voice that charms briefly but soon wears thin, and then throws Cole into a series of actions that never quite gathers itself into a well-crafted plot.
The building blocks of this tale are straight out of Chandler and Macdonald: a detective hired to recover a stolen rare object (in this case, an ancient Japanese tome called the Hagakure ); a troubled daughter in flight from an affluent, emotionally warped family; a beautiful ice queen who eventually melts in the face of the hero’s charisma; a climactic shift from the sin- and sun-drenched streets of Los Angeles to the false idyll of a mountain hideaway. Crais adds a couple of pieces that have a contemporary feel to them—the specter of child sexual abuse, a threat from Japan (in the form of Yakuza gangsters)—but the structure as a whole remains underdeveloped. Elvis Cole is a smart-ass with a heart of gold, and it’s hard to dislike him. Likability, however, does not always translate into readability.
[ADDENDUM: I’m repeating myself. I felt about this book pretty much the same as I felt about Robert B. Parker’s Looking for Rachel Wallace, and here I express the same kind of disappointment as I did just a few weeks ago about that earlier private-eye tale. Too often, I think, these latter-day exponents of the PI tradition conjure up the attitude of Philip Marlowe, but they lack the wit of Raymond Chandler; they fashion bleak plots that recall the work of Ross Macdonald, but the heroes that they create lack the humanity of Lew Archer. Is it just the case that PI tales that take place more or less in our own time don’t appeal to me? Not quite. I’ve read a few recent books of this kind that are also very good books. I’ll try, before long, to post a review of one such tale.]
This fairly early installment in the saga of Boston-based P.I. Spenser is also among the most admired books in the series. Spenser, as critics have noted, is not so much a private detective as he is a private avenger. He doesn’t break alibis; he busts heads. Instead of tracking down clues using his intellect, he vanquishes bad guys using his fists. Which isn’t to say that Spenser lacks wit. His first-person telling of this tale, about the kidnaping of a lesbian-feminist writer whom he had been hired to guard, abounds in clever dialogue and wry patter. That, along with Parker’s high-octane ability to move briskly from scene to scene, is what distinguishes the Spenser canon as a whole and this entry in particular. Far less impressive is Parker’s approach to plotting and characterization. In this instance, the story and the people who drive it are too thinly drawn to be compelling in their own right, and too rudimentary to generate a worthy challenge for Spenser. Even his sparring with Rachel Wallace—she assails the male protective instinct; he defends it—has a stagy (and now-dated) quality. Parker endows Spenser with a brute mastery of everything and everyone around him, and thereby stacks the narrative deck all too clearly in the avenger-hero’s favor.
[ADDENDUM: For many years, I lived in or near Boston, and I’m generally drawn to fiction that conveys a strong sense of any place where I’ve lived or that I’ve visited. So I very much wanted to like the Spenser novels. I tried a few of them, and they were a disappointment. I once read a line by John Updike, in a review of a book by J.D. Salinger, that struck a chord with me. “Salinger loves the Glasses more than God loves them. He loves them too exclusively. … He loves them to the detriment of artistic moderation,” Update wrote. That captures my response to a fair number of detective-genre writers who use series heroes, and none more so than Parker. He just loves Spenser too much. And for me, at least, it’s tiresome to spend time with a character who is so plainly a creature of authorial wish fulfillment.]