STEPHEN GREENLEAF – Beyond Blame.

Villard, hardcover, 1985; paperback reprint: Ballantine, January 1987.

   Synchronicity strikes again! In A Deadly Sickness, the John Penn mystery reviewed here not long ago, a local doctor is left a painting by Corot in a dead man’ s will. In Beyond Blame, Stephen Greenleaf’s latest case for California private eye John Marshall Tanner, the father of the law professor accused of his wife’s brutal mutilation murder has a painting by Corot in his front parlor.

STEPHEN GREEN LEAF beyond blame

   So, yes, I’m stretching it. (I have to admit I’d never heard of Corot before this week, but sometimes certain things just stick in your brain and jump out at you like this.) The point is, though, this is the only point in common to the two books. From a small village in England to the streets of present-day Berkeley is a trip more than a world apart. The number of deaths works out to be about the same in each, but in the Greenleaf booK the nature of the beast shows its true colors in biting, bone-chilling detail.

   Here’s the main theme of Greenleaf’s book: concerning those shown to be guilty of a crime, but deemed to be insane at the time of its commission, how blameless should they be considered in the eyes of the law?

   Also up for considerable discussion are: the proper role of law school in guiding their students to their destinies; the inadequacies and ineptness of the American penal system; and how the Free Speech movement of the 60’s has turned into nothing more than a sour dream.

   Through Tanner’s eyes, at least, we see only one extreme, the worst of the today’s contemporary drug underculture; the sad abandonment of a cause; and the broken and crazed psyches left fluttering in its wake. This is a depressing work of fiction; its aim is truth, not beauty. While the former is always debatable, in this book, I guarantee there is not much of the latter.

   A comment on the mystery (there is one, if your mind is not totally distracted by other matters before you reach the solution): the facts fit nicely together, but I couldn’t help but feel cheated by Tanner’s escape from the killer in the closing scene staged at the university’s Greek Theater. Dramatic, yes, and pure luck as well.

From Mystery.File 1, January 1987 (revised).



[UPDATE] 11-26-08.  One of the reasons I write reviews like this for almost every mystery I read is so that I won’t forget what I read and how I liked a given book. In this case, almost nothing came back, either writing the review or reading the book. I’d read it again, but I confess that my review didn’t encourage me very much to do so. I have a feeling that I’m going to have to be in the right sort of mood before I do.

   But I do admire what Stephen Greenleaf was trying to do in this book, and there are many other Greenleaf books I haven’t read. My review isn’t going to persuade me not to read any of those, and if you’re a private eye fan, especially one with a middle-to-left persuasion, it shouldn’t do so for you either.

   For a long overview of his books by Ed Lynskey, and an interview we did with the author several years ago, may I recommend that you go here on the main Mystery*File website. You’ll find a complete bibliography there as well.