Detective novel transcends genre in giving instruction and delight

Beyond Blame, by Stephen Greenleaf. New York: Villard Books. 290 pp. $15.95. Stephen Greenleaf's detective hero, John Marshall Tanner, belongs to the tough California tradition established by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Tanner works out of San Francisco, but the whole Bay Area is his beat. This time the scene is Berkeley.

Besides Hammett and Chandler, there's Ross Macdonald. But whereas Macdonald's focus is psychological, Greenleaf's appears to be more purely moral. In previous novels, we've learned that Tanner keeps a copy of Montaigne on the back seat of his Buick for lonely stakeouts. In this one, he answers his own question about why he should take a case by paraphrasing Pope: The proper study of mankind is man. But can we learn about man from a detective novel? Given the recipe -- which includes some violence, photographic realism, and a plot that threatens to override our interest in the characters -- a kind of escape may be involved. But the study of man?

Moral or romantic or cynical, in the hands of a master this kind of fiction can be as elegant as a geometry proof. To be so, the plot, the character of the private eye, and the prose style must have a certain symmetry. Greenleaf's style is plain, the sentences, like the plotting, tight. Tanner is celibate, laconic, aging, and reluctant to involve himself in anything messy.

The setting of Greenleaf's latest, ``Beyond Blame,'' is Berkeley, Calif. Tanner law school there, as did the author. Now it's the '80s, and the '60s generation has grown up. In the process, idealism has turned to cynicism in some cases; in others, mere apathy. ``Beyond Blame'' is a kind of generational novel in this sense, and Berkeley stands for everyone who came of age in the '60s.

The beautiful site of the University of California at Berkeley attracts geniuses. But genius can be near to madness; and Berkeley shares itself equally with geniuses and crazies. One academic genius in question in ``Beyond Blame'' is the victim's husband, who teaches law and defends murderers by a cunning use of the insanity defense. When he himself becomes a suspect, it's feared he'll go free, as have so many of his clients, ``guilty but mentally ill.''

In addition to being a fascinating portrait of a culturally important city, ``Beyond Blame'' constitutes an extended meditation on the insanity defense.

The plot thickens with the introduction of the defendant's partner, a coldly calculating psychiatrist. ``Beyond Blame'' deals not only with genius but also with the parasites of geniuses, the kind of people who get fat shielding geniuses from the consequences of their acts. Berkeley has indeed proved tolerant to antisocial behavior, and ``Beyond Blame'' succeeds as a portrait of a city that has undergone an almost symbolic generational change, from being a hotbed of radicals to a boutique ghetto.

The noun phras ``boutique ghetto'' suggests that where there is a boutique, there is a ghetto, too. Berkeley is home both to Alice Water's new California cuisine, Chez Panisse, and the homeless children, some of them still dreaming the dream of liberation dreamed by their fathers and mothers in the '60s, but with new and more dangerous drugs. ``Beyond Blame'' is a sometimes terrifying, always moving portrait of the underbelly of the new Berkeley.

The book opens with an epigraph from the Garden of Eden story in the book of Genesis. We recall that Adam did not at the outset accept responsibility for his actions. Adamic purity, however, cannot protect us from the results of our actions. Berkeley, like Eden, is as good a place as any to come to terms with these uncomforting truths.

Greenleaf recently tried his hand at writing a conventional novel, presumably in an effort to break out of the confining conventions of the detective genre and produce a best seller. Connoisseurs complained. And now he has perhaps redeemed himself. As detective fiction, ``Beyond Blame'' transcends its limits by fulfilling to a rare degree its potentials for instruction and delight.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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