Grave Error by Stephen Greenleaf
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
”I just wanted to get away from it, the curse that Oxtail had cast upon everyone who lived there. That was where the guilt lay, with the town, with the collective consciousness that twisted and bent and spoiled and soured the people who had grown up with it, breathing its vapors. But they don’t put towns in jail. They probably should, but they don’t.”
John Marshall Tanner has been asked to investigate the celebrity reporter Roland Nelson by his rather attractive wife. Private eyes love it when good looking women come into their office needing the kind of help only they can provide. Marsh is no exception, except he has been around the block long enough to know better than to have his head turned by a few curves and a pair of nicely turned calves.
It doesn’t take more than a couple of days to figure out that what the wife suspects is not the problem. There is certainly deception, but the strings fanning out from that determination are twisted and knotted. The story is larger, more convoluted, but Marsh is about to put the case behind him because finding out the whole truth isn’t always what his clients want. When his best friend Harry Spring is found lying dead in a ditch with a double tap to the back of his head in the town of Oxtail...well Marsh is back in the middle of all of it.
When he discovers that Spring was working for Clair Nelson, the daughter of Roland Nelson, he starts to realize that the case he is about to wrap up is far from over and some of those strings leading to the truth have been cut or should I say bludgeoned, shot, stabbed.
Oxtail is a farming community outside of San Francisco. A town full of unfriendly, inbred, distrustful, defeated people. I had flashes of Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) from the movie Chinatown running in those orange groves trying to escape the range of shotguns being triggered by rednecks. Between the oppressive heat and the cloying smell of rotting produce, Marsh is wrapped up in a blanket of smothering despondency.
”There was nothing pretty about the Oxtail link in the chain of commerce. Foods that would look delicate and tasty in a fine restaurant were ugly and misshapen and seemed vaguely carnivorous while lying in giant storage bins or open truck trailers. The streets were littered with rotting vegetables fallen from careening trucks and the air was sharp with the smell of overripe fruit, the smell of things well past their prime. Things like me.”
Unsolved deaths from the past are encroaching on the present, creating more confusion and more speculation about exactly what got Harry Spring killed. The wild card whom Marsh most wants to put a finger on is Al Rodman, the boyfriend of Claire Nelson, a known thug with a local syndicate in San Francisco. Rodman’s involvement with the Nelson’s and his connections to Oxtail make him a prime candidate for murder, but as bodies keep piling up, it becomes more and more apparent that this case is not one case, but a series of unresolved events each swathed in layers of duplicity.
And of course there is a woman, not just any woman, but a woman that makes a man think about settling down with babies and a white picket fence. He might even get a real job.
”The woman was introduced as Sara Brooke, Roland Nelson’s chief assistant. Many beautiful women don’t wear too well up close. The features that knock you out from across the room often become incongruous on close inspection: the hair is too stiff, the lips too thin, the nostrils too flared or too crimped. Sara Brooke had just the opposite effect. You probably wouldn’t pick her out of the crowd at a cocktail party, but if you found yourself sitting next to her on a bar stool you wouldn’t leave until she did.”
As the case unspools and Marsh doggedly chases down each fragment of truth adding new pieces to the puzzle in his head, he starts to realize that truth is truly stranger than fiction.
”I told it. The words poured out like salt and I listened to them with the detachment of a critic. They were rational words, academic and sterile, as if murder and blackmail and two decades of rage were as traditional as nursery rhymes.”
You would think when I lived in San Francisco I would have read a few Stephen Greenleaf novels,, but it took reading The Mexican Tree Duck by James Crumley to finally convince me that I have been missing out by not adding Greenleaf to my hardboiled reading resume. Crumley extolled the virtues of having a Greenleaf novel on a stakeout or anytime the doldrums needed to be chased away by a dose of Raymond Chandler through the pen of a disciple. There is no shortage of clipped hardnosed prose. "The guy looked like a hood, anyhow. Drove a big black Chrysler, had a kind of flat face, like his old lady had been frightened by a frying pan when he was in the womb.”
The plot is an intricate, tangled mess that does straighten out as Marsh starts to make sense of the nonsensical. I even found myself exclaiming “No Way” after one such revelation. I must confess I do talk to my books from time to time. :-) This book is a classic example of a 1970s ode to Chandler.
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I bought this book from Canford Book Corral located in Freeville, New York.
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