Saturday, July 11, 2009

Books You Oughta Read -- The Ditto List

During the Eighties and Nineties, Stephen Greenleaf wrote a series of well-regarded mysteries featuring P.I. John Marshall Tanner. There were 14 in all, beginning with 1979's "Grave Error" and finishing up with "Ellipsis" in 2000. Many volumes were set in and around the San Francisco Bay Area, including one of the best, "Beyond Blame," whose climax occurs just a few blocks from where I sit now -- in Berkeley's People's Park.

Greenleaf is unusual in that he voluntarily retired the Tanner series and didn't feel the need to keep pushing them out in the face of diminishing sales. He discusses his reasons in this interesting interview from MysteryFile.

My favorite Greenleaf, however isn't one of the Tanners; it's a stand-alone, mainstream novel entitled "The Ditto List," published in 1986. It's not exactly a "legal thrilller," as these things have come to be known in the post-Grisham era, but rather the story of a down-on-his-luck attorney attempting to re-discover his purpose in life.

My, that doesn't sound appealing, does it? Let's try again: "The Ditto List" is the story of D.T. Jones, a divorce lawyer still in love with his ex-wife, who does the best he can for his female clients, even though he can barely make payroll. He tries to protect them from serial abusers and cold-blooded misogynists while trying to sort out his own problems with creditors, staff and former colleagues.

Greenleaf works hard to keep the proceedings from beginning too grim. D.T. is handy with a wisecrack, but there are a number of plot complications that require him to dig beyond his usual glib responses.

The best part of the book, the thing has brought me back to it more than once, is its penultimate chapter. It's a thing of beauty, as cleverly constructed as "Walt Catches Cold," the pivotal chapter in John Irving's "The World According to Garp." It's a courtroom scene, of course, with D.T. facing down a doctor who has abandoned his wife, now nearly crippled by MS. Everything -- theme, plot, characterization -- snaps together in a totally unexpected, totally satisfying way in that chapter. Sometimes I take the paperback edition of "The Ditto List" from the shelf just to re-read those 16 pages, they're that funny, pungent and compelling.

Unfortunately, the final chapter of "The Ditto List" is more than a little hokey, a rom-com fantasy ending that doesn't live up to what's gone before. But, hey, what are you going to do? If you like lawyer novels and want something different from the usual super-serious, "conspiracy in every corner" claptrap, seek out "The Ditto List."

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