John Marshall Tanner has spent most of his life avoiding parties—an easy feat for San Francisco’s most introspective private detective. Nevertheless, when one of his closest friends, publisher Bryce Chatterton, finds himself in desperate need of a private eye, Tanner joins him at the party thrown to announce Periwinkle Press’s latest publication—but there’s little reason to celebrate.
The publisher’s financial backer has decided to pull the plug on Periwinkle unless Chatterton can come up with a bestseller fast. Chatterton thinks he has his hands on a surefire hit—but he’s not sure if he can print it. The book is an anonymous tell-all, implicating some of the city’s most powerful in a chilling miscarriage of justice, and Chatterton needs the author to corroborate the story. Only Tanner can track down the mysterious writer, but are the secrets between the pages of this manuscript worth dying for?
Book Case is the 7th book in the John Marshall Tanner Mysteries, but you may enjoy reading the series in any order.
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A John Marshall Tanner Mystery
By Stephen Greenleaf
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated MediaCopyright © 1991 Stephen Greenleaf
All rights reserved.
I'm not certain whether the affliction originates in genetic disinclination or environmentally induced aversion, but I've always been more a recluse than a celebrant. Most of my lies have been uttered to evade the sticky dangle of a social occasion, and most of my alcoholic intake has been consumed to ease me through those festivities I've been too timid or unimaginative to avoid. As a result, parties and I pretty much parted company early in the last decade, when staying home with Malamud or Mahler or Montana began to seem preferable to most of the alternatives that came my way — cocooning, I believe they call it now that the tastemakers have followed my lead. So it was distinctly out of the ordinary for me to be parading my hard-won nonchalance on the fringes of a handsomely refurbished loft on the trendiest corner south of Market, with something called the Sunday Punch sloshing over the rim of the plastic glass that had been foisted on me the moment I arrived, as I waited for my host to find time to tell me why I'd been invited to spend an evening with half a hundred guests who were far too young to have been confronted by life's more vicious vicissitudes, at least not the sort that made my own little ledge of the world a precarious perch.
As out of place as a parent at a prom, all I knew as I looked for something sufficiently potent to wash away the lingering sweetness of my drink was that Bryce Chatterton had been a friend for twenty years, and all I guessed was that, given the nature of my business, he was in some kind of trouble. If that was the case, I would do anything I could to help, within reason or without. A dozen years ago, Bryce had ushered me across a nasty wrinkle in my life, when my failure to become either professionally consequential or personally connubial had spawned a depression that only Bryce's relentless applications of common sense and good cheer had lured me out of. As a result, I had owed him a debt for a long time. As with all my debts, I would feel better once it was paid off.
The name on the building read PERIWINKLE PRESS, broadcasting its presence to the ever-less-literate nation by a block of off-white neon featuring an appropriately leafy logo that entwined itself among the blinking letters and garlanded them with blossoms of literally electric blue. Bryce Chatterton was the founder, president, and sole surviving editor of the enterprise. Ostensibly, the purpose of the party was to announce Periwinkle's publication of a collection of poetry by the young woman who was now backed into the far corner of the room by the press of her gushing admirers, her smile just slightly less dazzling than the head she had shaved to her scalp in honor of the occasion. All of which was further proof that I must have been present for some other reason — I haven't read a poem since the day Walt Kelly died and took Pogo and Albert with him.
Since in attitude, age and attire I was easily branded alien, my tour of the room was unimpeded by fellowship. I was not entirely bored, however — there's a hot new parlor game making the rounds in San Francisco these days. It's called Earthquake, and the object is to relate the most terrifying, heartwarming, scandalous, or apocalyptic experience that has at least a tenuous connection to the October tremor or its aftermath. The winner, of course, usually tells a tale that combines at least three of those attributes while suggesting he somehow managed to experience the event while at Candlestick Park, on the Bay Bridge, in the Marina, near the Nimitz, and under the bay in a BART tube, in an amazing feat of simultaneity. But the best this party could come up with was some suburbanites' competitive comparison of how much water the quake had sloshed out of their in-ground pools.
Thankfully, the evening was not without its other charms, most of which consisted of the literary snippets that wafted my way as I trailed my host around the room:
"I hear they only printed two hundred copies; that's barely enough to supply her ex-husbands. Of course nowadays what with computerized typesetting they can go back to press in a minute. I think Doubleday printed my book on Lapland life-styles one at a time. ..."
"He got a five-figure advance from Harper for a coffee-table book about owls. Who knew owls were going to be big, for God's sake?"
"I heard the film rights went for a million, then when Redford decided to do Beanfield instead they just stuck it on the shelf. But why should she care, right? I mean, she can make her own movie for that kind of money, as long as she doesn't have to pick up the cocaine tab. ..."
"He told me Mailer read it and loved it but Random's list is full till ninety-two and Meredith's not taking on anyone new. I was going to send it to Pynchon, but only his agent seems to know where he is and she's not telling. I guess I'd write a romance in the meantime, just to tide me over. I mean how hard could it be — a mansion, two rapes, and a seduction and they sail off into the setting sun. ..."
"He told me I didn't really want to write, I only wanted to 'be a writer.' Can you believe it? And to think I was actually going in on a condo with the creep. ..."
"I'm almost thirty pages into it. Conduce says it's the best thing I've ever done, but she thinks it should be a play because my dialogue's so today it totally overwhelms the narrative. At least that's what Candace says. So I was wondering if you'd take a look and tell me what you think. ..."
"Her editor moved to New Zealand to herd sheep or something and the manuscript disappeared in the process, only Hortense didn't know it for six months. In the meantime, she started seeing a channeler in Emeryville who convinced her that novels were spiritually irrelevant, so when she finally got it back she fed all nine hundred pages into the barbecue and cooked a Cornish game hen over them. She always was an Anglophile, you know. ..."
"The only intelligent thing he ever said to me about writing fiction was, 'Just because it happened, doesn't mean it's good.'"
I continued my misanthropic drift, avoiding the few people who seemed inclined to talk about something other than themselves, trying to keep the punch within the rhomboid confines of the plastic glass, keeping one weary eye on my host. Weaving his way like an eel through the gaggle of distaff groupies, Bryce Chatterton was a dervish of wit and hospitality, keeping glasses topped up, fingers filled with food, and people whose propinquity was solely geographical apprised of each other's deliciously eclectic life-style. Whenever our eyes met, Bryce invariably signaled that he'd be with me in a minute, he had just one more thing to take care of, he hoped I understood, but somehow that minute never came. As at every party I'd ever attended, no matter where you had come from or where you wanted to go, time stopped well short of satisfaction.
Meanwhile, Bryce's wife occupied a companionably overstuffed chair in the corner of the room opposite the guest of honor, her eyes buried in a book she was careful to demonstrate was not the volume being feted that evening. Normally, such outré behavior would be chastised by a self-appointed social arbiter, but since Margaret Chatterton's money had underwritten the entire decade of Periwinkle's perilous existence, no one chose to take umbrage at such aggressive aloofness. Not out loud, at any rate.
The next time I looked her way, I caught Margaret watching me, a furrow in her brow and a purse to her lips. But instead of acknowledging my glance, she lowered her eyes to her book and pretended neither our senses nor our sightlines had never tangled, a reaction only too indicative of the state of our mutual regard.
I'd first met her husband back in his bachelor days, when we began to run into each other at various clubs around the city in pursuit of our mutual passion for the bebop trumpet. Periodic encounters at Basin Street West and El Matador eventually evolved into the bar-ballgame-bullshit triumvirate that was the cornerstone of male friendship in the days before estimations of present and prospective wealth became the exclusive subject of discussion in the city.
When we met, Bryce had only recently abandoned the literary aspirations that had been fueled by his idolization of Scott Fitzgerald and his Stegner fellowship in Stanford's famous writing program. A clerk in a Post Street used bookstore — an antiquarian bookshop, its owner dubbed it in order to justify the markup — Bryce was barely earning enough to stay afloat in the increasingly precious nectar that was post-sixties San Francisco. But because even more than jazz, books were his major passion, he was content to be a minor player in the minor minuet that passed for the city's literary scene.
Eventually, Bryce began to appear with less and less frequency at our haunts. Since both the quantity and quality of American jazz had already begun its steep decline, I thought that might be the reason for his absence. But what I hoped was that, in contrast to my quarter century of failure in that regard, Bryce had found a woman he liked well enough to marry.
Most men are by nature unskilled in the things that matter. Indeed, it is often the very size of their ineptitude that makes them marriageable, in need of a complementary union to function at anything resembling their best. Because Bryce Chatterton was less able than anyone I knew at the mechanics of existence — Bryce couldn't fry an egg, for example, or fill out a deposit slip — I was cheered when I learned his rescue had been realized.
Margaret had seemed in the nature of a coup for Bryce, someone who both shared his love for books and possessed a net worth that could afford him a regular diet of the pricey first editions that were locked away in the long glass case at the rear of his employer's musty establishment. Though the outward signs were thus encouraging, and I wished the two of them nothing but the best, the downside was that our friendship failed to survive the marriage. Partly because such friendships rarely do, partly because Periwinkle was founded shortly thereafter and immediately knotted the loose ends in Bryce's days and evenings, and partly because Margaret clearly felt that private investigators occupied a slot in the social strata somewhere below men's room attendants, an opinion that seemed to slip a notch after she was introduced to me.
Nonetheless, I was pleased when Bryce began to ascend through the local literary stratosphere and when his bon mots began to appear in the city's most prominent gossip column almost as frequently as Strange de Jim's. He would telephone me periodically to bemoan the premature demise of one of our musical idols, or rhapsodize over the discovery of his latest genius, and we would exchange heartfelt pledges to get together soon, for baseball or for lunch. But except for a handful of rather rote occasions and an all-too-recent disaster during a party at my apartment, we seldom followed through. Suddenly ten years had passed, and when I received an invitation to the publication party it was out of a blue, as blue as Periwinkle's tiny bloom.
When Bryce swept past me yet another time and tried to give me something resembling a mollusk pursuing a sunburn on a Ritz, I asked him how long he thought it would be before we could talk. Bryce is both thoroughly polite and relentlessly optimistic, which tends to overload his expression with a guileless mix of astonishment and glee. In answer to my question, his eyes blazed so brightly behind their steel-rimmed glasses it seemed certain he intended the next book on Periwinkle's list to be entitled Talks with Tanner.
"Soon, Marsh," he promised. "I'm going to shoo them off to the Café Roma in ten minutes. I've arranged something special for Matilda tonight — they're pouring a new drink in her honor, named after the new book. Cointreau, cinnamon, and clotted cream; I think she'll be pleased, don't you?"
I glanced at Matilda. Her pate was glistening from the warmth of her reception and she was clutching her book to her side as though its gossamer imagery would fly away if her grip loosened even slightly. The poems were about traffic, I'd heard someone say — cars and trucks and what happens when you ride around in them. The collection was entitled Gridlock, and the jacket photograph featured Matilda in a bikini and a chaise longue, recumbent on an endangered species — an empty parking space within a mile of Union Square.
As one of Matilda's more unctuous friends began extolling her talent at the expense of Amy Clampitt, Bryce glanced furtively at his watch. "I'll meet you in my office at nine, Marsh; you can go on back, if you like. There's scotch in the credenza, lower left — I know that's more your style. But first I've got to try to convince a young postmodern to send her new collection to Periwinkle. She's clearly ready to break out — with the right promotion and some suitably bizarre behavior on her part, I think I can make her the next Kathy Acker."
With a flip of his hand, Bryce went off to foist the Ritz on an impressively outlandish young woman who seemed more insulted than thrilled by the attention, which no doubt made her personality congruent with her prose. When Bryce was well into his spray of flattery, I surveyed my surroundings more closely, since it was my first visit to Periwinkle's inner sanctum.
The party was corrupting what was normally the conference room. Darkly handsome, it was furnished in the timeless style of an English men's club, with ponderous leather chairs and heavily tufted chesterfields. Beneath the gleaming brass reading lamps suitably esoteric tomes were displayed on deeply oiled occasional tables. The wall at my back was entirely a bookshelf and its opposite was mostly glass, beyond which a leather bar and a fabricating plant mocked us from the ungentrified side of the street.
On the wall to my right, precisely paneled squares bore framed and spotlighted covers from Periwinkle's meager backlist, matted in a brilliant blue. Although I read my share of reviews and spent more than a few of my Saturday mornings browsing through the Recent Acquisitions section of my neighborhood library branch, few of the titles were familiar to me. Which might have explained why Margaret Chatterton had a scowl on her face when I looked her way a second time.
When I bowed toward what looked like the standard edition of her disdain, she unexpectedly motioned for me to join her. Margaret was one of those women who demands a fealty that exceeds my understanding and is thus beyond my power to confer, which makes me feel vaguely culpable. I obeyed her summons immediately.
"It's been a long time, Marsh," she said, the makings of mischief in her eye. "Are you enjoying your wallow among the literati?"
I looked down at the gray-streaked hair, the narrow nose, the vertically striated neck, the reluctant breasts that barely disturbed the drape of her cashmere dress. "About as much as you are, I'd say."
Her smile turned snide. "Now you know how I felt at your Super Bowl party."
"I wouldn't have been offended if you'd stayed home, Margaret."
"I wouldn't have hesitated to offend you; it was Bryce I was worried about. I had to make sure he didn't make any more of those ridiculous wagers."
"Well, you got the job done. As I recall, no one did anything remotely ridiculous that day."
She looked up at me as she fiddled with the jewel that was suspended at her throat like a drop of her husband's blood. "I did put a damper on the whole affair, didn't I?"
By the time the 49ers had launched their winning drive, I had been the only one left in the room, the rest of my guests having retired to the Caffé Sport to escape Margaret's running commentary, which made Howard Cosell's sound like the Reverend Schuler's. "That about covers it," I admitted.
She closed her book with the snap of a steel trap. "So what. Football is sadistic and its trappings are sexist. It ought to be banned." With that burst of intellectual fascism, Margaret turned toward the crowd that continued to buzz with pleasure at nothing more apparent than its self-regard. "It's hardly encouraging, is it, to know that the majority of people in this room think literature begins with Erica Jong and ends with Tama Janowitz."
Her words buckled with a contempt so vast it must necessarily have encompassed herself. Since there wasn't anything else to do, and since if Bryce did plan to engage me professionally it would probably be Margaret who paid the bill, I tried to jar her out of it. "You'd prefer they were discussing Jane Austen, I take it. Or maybe Ayn Rand."
Excerpted from Book Case by Stephen Greenleaf. Copyright © 1991 Stephen Greenleaf. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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