"Among other things, I'm a drinking man. Not an alcoholic, mind you--I don't imbibe until I pass out, or go on weekend benders, or wake with the shakes and shivers, or lose blocks of time in which I've done things I'm ashamed of when apprised of them--but I do take a drink most nights of the week.'
"I like the places my mind visits when it's been primed with a half-dozen ounces of scotch and I like the person I become when my congenital tethers are loosened up a bit--I'm friendlier and funnier in such a state, less prone to the charms of gloom and doom. That I've been able to stay a drinking man rather than descending into a drunk is due less to my character than to my genes, the experts tell me..."
"In my experience, drunks are arrogant, assertive, and antagonistic; drunks are loud, lewd, and lecherous; drunks are dumb, dull, and demoralizing. Drunks demand excessive sympathy and dole out excessive blame. Drunks love the bottle more than they love themselves, and themselves more than they love anything else but the bottle. If my only alternatives were to spend my time surrounded by drunks or give up drinking altogether, my choice would be the latter. Luckily, there is a third option, which is to find a drinking man's bar..."
A description of the bar follows, and a description of the drinking crowd that gathers there. One night Tanner's closest friend among them begins to relate his troubles with his wife, a torch singer at one of San Francisco's high-priced nightclubs. She is apparently having an affair with Richard Sands, a married, rich, corporate raider who has become enchanted with her singing. Tanner's friend turns up dead, and Tanner is drawn into an investigation of his death.
That's basically Stephen Greenleaf's opening, but he does it beautifully, with charming off-hand empathy. We either identify with Tanner or have empathy with him in his description of the siren call of the bottle. He drinks almost every night, but he honestly doesn't see his drinking as a problem or even as an addiction. He recognizes his problems, all right--for instance, he hasn't been able to deeply love a woman, nor to live by a commitment, in thirty years of drinking. But he doesn't see any connection between his restless sense of emptiness and his drinking.
This is a very subtle sleight of hand, which makes the novel worth reading again and again, closely. Greenleaf is more aware than his protagonist, much aware of the "siren songs" of addiction. Like Greenleaf himself was then, the protagonist is an ex-lawyer, filled with disgust for lawyers. At the time of this novel, the first Gulf war is going on, and Tanner watches it on television and comments about it as the case unfolds.
Tanner bats from the left side and tells it like he sees it: "Switched from CNN to ABC. Learned the Supreme Court had just decided to allow coerced confessions to be used against criminal defendants. Fixed another drink. Thought about the demise of the once proud court. . .In this brave new world, the Constitution is less a bill of rights than a bill of lading..."
This is a detective yarn with Ross MacDonald-like twists, a conspiracy novel written in an endearingly intelligent voice that remains fresh every time I read it. It is satisfying on all levels and understatedly psychological. It comments on the politics of our time with asides of social criticism appearing here and there like comic relief. Its deepest themes are played with empathy and humanism, for those with ears to hear them.
I blogged about Stephen Greenleaf earlier in the year. This marvelous novel is out-of-print, but used copies were available at Amazon last time I checked.
Greenleaf changed publishers several times but could not find a formula for commercial success, in spite of his high critical reception. Dustin Hoffman once bought the rights to The Ditto List, a stand-alone novel, but the movie did not get made and Hollywood never came calling about his smart Tanner detective series. Greenleaf reluctantly quit fiction and went back to being a lawyer.
You can read an interview with him at this link.