John Marshall Tanner

Created by Stephen Greenleaf

“…they don’t put towns in jail. They probably should, but they don’t.”
Tanner in Grave Error

A sort of edgier spin on the old Perry Mason/Scott Jordan bit about the lawyer who thinks he’s a private eye. JOHN MARSHALL “MARSH” TANNER is a San Francisco private eye who, technically, is still a lawyer. But he just doesn’t practise anymore, having quit after “the judicial system’s persecution unto death of one of (his) less resilient clients.”

So Marsh makes a living as a gumshoe in the City By The Bay in a series of must-read novels that ran through the eighties and nineties — a couple of decades that had more than their fair share of strong P.I. series.

But Marsh’s true literary antecedent isn’t Mason or Jordan or any of that ilk. Truth to tell, he owes a lot more to Eeyore, A.A. Milne’s fatalistic stuffed donkey with the tail problem (cf. Winnie the Pooh). Marsh is a loner, almost a recluse. He’s middle-aged and single, and painfully aware of both facts. He seems to be working his way to achieving full-curmudgeon status, albeit in the political left division. And his gloom’n’doom isn’t helped by a profession he feels “traffics in misery.”

When he’s not out doing his job, he prefers to stay at home, reading, listening to music or watching sports on television, a stiff drink and a bag of Oreos by his side. He occasionally heads out to his favourite watering hole, but he maintains he’s a drinking man, not a drunk. One of his few friends that he still keeps in touch with is Charlie Sleet, a cop.

Marsh was born in the Midwest, but came to San Francisco to attend college, and eventually law school. After he quit practising law, an older eye, Harry Springer, took Marsh under his wing and showed him the ropes. Marsh set up shop on his own, above an antique store on Hotaling Place, complete with a secretary, Peggy (just like Mannix‘s secretary, a point Tanner remarks upon) Nettleton that he seems to worship from afar.

But not far enough, it seems. The middle-aged malaise that plagues Marsh seems to plague Peggy too, and drives a wedge into their relationship. Finally, following a rather nasty set of circumstances involving an obscene phone caller and murder, as depicted in 1987’s Toll Call, they go their separate ways, and Marsh has had to make do on his own, with occasional office help, ever since.

Author Greenleaf, like Tanner a transplanted midwesterner and former lawyer, attended law school at U. C. Berkeley and served a year at Fort Ord, on the Monterey Peninsula. Despite his ambivalence about his military experience, he enjoyed the area so much that he returned in 1970, to practice law in Monterey. But “after three years of practice on the peninsula, and three more in San Francisco,” he confessed in Mystery Readers Journal, “I was more than eager to abandon the law and try my hand at writing fiction.”

Greenleaf has never shied away from tackling controversial issues over the years, be they radical politics (Death Bed); legal insanity (Beyond Blame); libel in fiction (Book Case); corporate chicanery (Blood Type); racism (Southern Cross) or surrogate motherhood (False Conception). Tanner has ventured to Berkeley (Beyond Blame), to Iowa (Fatal Obsession), to South Carolina (Southern Cross) and Seattle (Flesh Wounds).

Readers looking for a continuation of Ross Macdonald’s angst-ridden Lew Archer tales would be well-advised to check this series out. In Greenleaf’s own words, “What I hoped to do was write about the Bay Area in the way Ross Macdonald wrote about Southern California.” Greenleaf’s attempt to seek alternatives to murder as the engine for his novels, has added considerable depth to them, and they often pack an emotional and moral wallop. Death Bed, in particular, has always struck me as one of the most powerful P.I. novels I’ve read, and the murderer’s M.O. is one of the nastiest imaginable.

One of the very bravest and boldest private eye series of the eighties and nineties; endlessly engaging and not afraid to push buttons. Heartily and highly recommended.


Stephen Greenleaf’s books about  Tanner and Jonthan Valin’s books about Harry Stoner were often being mentioned in the same breath by both critics and readers by the time I started this site back in 1998, with both cited as stand-out series from the eighties that had abruptly–or at least prematurely–concluded. A 2006 poll on The Rap Sheet that asked their readers which long-missing crime novelists they would most like to see return ended with Valin and Greenleaf nailing the top two spots. Both series featured middle-aged, solitary private investigators who spent too much time brooding (and drinking), and both were plagued with a sense of regret, duty and loss that gave their adventures a sense of melancholy, leavened with enough gripping  P.I. action and wry observations to make them seem like real contenders. So naturally neither achieved the commercial success they deserved, and both series wrapped up with books that deliberately tied long-running threads together.

Missing (1995) ended with Valin intentionally leaving his beleaguered detective “with a decent shot at happiness. I had toyed with killing him, but instead I found him a woman and had him thinking about marriage. Then I went on to something else.” Coincidentally, the last name of the victim whose murder he was hired to solve was… Greenleaf.

Greenleaf manage to keep his series going for another fifteen years, but the final entry, Ellipsis (2000), also came off as valedictory, with the gloomy lawyer-turned-sleuth at the novel’s conclusion celebrating a birthday with booze and a bag of Oreos, his loved ones gathered round. It’s about as sentimental and schmaltzy a finale as they come, bust somehow also rather satisfying. The author also confessed, though, that the series’ conclusion “was more forced than elected. When no publisher was willing to bring Strawberry Sunday (1999) out in softcover, even though it had been nominated for an Edgar, I knew Tanner’s day was done. 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.”


  • “Ross Macdonald was my model, beginning to end, in terms of both style and substance.”
    — Stephen Greenleaf (2005, The Mystery*File)




Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith. Thanks a bunch to Bluefox808 for the extra info on this page. |

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