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Mystery Monday Review – Grave Error

Grave Error by Stephen Greenleaf


Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)


In the first of the series starring PI John Marshall Tanner, he is hired by a wife worried about her husband’s recent furtive behavior. Such as, he disappeared for a week and large amounts of money are running through his hands. Going on a spree and all night poker would drive ordinary guys off the rails for a week, but the husband is no ordinary guy. He’s a nationally famous consumer advocate whose reputation for probity and integrity makes partying unlikely and undesirable.

The couple have a handicapped daughter who has retained as a PI Tanner’s old buddy. The old buddy ends up snuffed execution style. Old buddy’s distraught wife hires Tanner to nail the perp. Though Tanner puts the consumer advocate case on the back burner, he does get emotionally involved with a beautiful and smart lady-lawyer who works in the consumer organization. Tanner pursues the case to the very bitter end.

Tanner is a fairly intellectual guy. In his first-person narration, he deploys  heavy duty vocabulary like “immutably” and “vilify.” He makes learned allusions, owns an original Paul Klee, and a taste in antiques, given that he works at his grandfather’s walnut desk. Those that like Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer series will enjoy a convoluted plot and Tanner’s brooding descriptions of Northern California’s landscapes and lifestyles. When this novel was released in 1979, The New Yorker magazine praised it with, “The classic California private-eye novel . . . Mr. Greenleaf is a real writer with a real talent.”

The problem is, it’s depressing. Tanner’s an emotional guy who takes things to heart. He’s had rough experiences that have left marks. The plot too often stops while Tanner recounts grotesque stories and ruminates. And ruminates a little more. Though many readers and critics consider Greenleaf the natural heir to the hard-boiled traditions of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, I doubt if I will read another one of the 14-book series.

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