Text Box: The books of Russell H. Greenan

The details “grisly”, the people “lunatic”, the results, “magnetic”.

In view

“Greenan's Cheerful Gothica”

Endpaper, Literary Review

The Hindu  May 7, 2006

Pradeep Sebastian

© Copyright 2000 - 2006 The Hindu

It is time for Russell H. Greenan to take his place as one of the most original and entertaining writers in genre fiction .

ELEGANT AND DEVIOUS: Greenan's works are ahead of their time.

IN the 1970s and 1980s, every used bookstore and pavement bookseller in Bangalore, Chennai, Hyderabad and Mumbai carried paperback copies of a book called It Happened in Boston? (1968) by Russell H.Greenan. The extraordinary blurbs for it proclaimed it as an unusual suspense thriller that even Hitchcock would have loved.

Offbeat thriller

While most other thrillers were functional, It Happened in Boston? was sophisticated, stylish, witty and, of course, extraordinary. Always on the lookout for the offbeat thriller, I would have bought it anyway but what compelled me to grab the book that day as I stood there on the pavement browsing was a mysterious reference to Babylon and Bangalore in chapter two.

I had expected to read it at one sitting but found that its elegant language and devious plotting had to be savoured; sipped slowly. In retrospect, it was the first (truly) literary mystery I had read. It was unique also because it was full of ambiguities. Just the kind of thriller I had begun to admire ever since I had discovered the novels of Ira Levin. (Many, many years later I would stumble on my next Greenan book, The Secret Life of Algernon Pendleton and there come across a rave blurb by Levin — I had known in my heart that he would have loved Greenan's sense of a cheerfully macabre and ambiguous suspense, and here was proof).

It Happened in Boston? has now been reissued in a Modern Library edition (as a 20th century discovery) with an ecstatic, brilliant introduction by Jonathan Lethem. "It is a magic spell of a book — phantasmagoric, lushly written, full of unforgettable characters and brilliant twists of plot," writes Lethem. He also talks of "buttery opulence of Greenan's descriptions". Especially when writing about art works or evoking the spellbinding atmosphere of the book. Greenan himself is ripe for rediscovery as many of his books are now in print. While the Modern Library edition of ... Boston? is available in bookstores in India, the other Greenan books (13 in all) alas, are not.

... Boston? is the story of "a brilliantly talented, unbalanced artist who strives to meet God face-to-face in order to destroy Him." […]

Doesn't sound like a thriller, does it? But it is. Macabre, original and darkly comic — like so many of Greenan's novels. A recent web site (www.russellhgreenan.info) devoted to his work notes that, "Critics view his work as mystery, horror, crime, fantasy and "cheerful gothica". Another fascinating aspect of his work that the website points to are the striking book cover designs. Displayed on the site are several of these richly designed book covers (the European editions in particular) that even book cover artists have paid special attention to.

While ... Boston? seems to be his best-known work, Greenan's fans have their own favourites — ranging from A Can of Worms to Keepers to Nightmare. (My own favourite is ... Algernon, which has been nicely and lovingly adapted as a film by John Cullum, starring Carrie Anne Moss).

Ahead of its time

As genre fiction, his work was — and is — ahead of its time, anticipating several genre-bending stories from the 1990s to the present. Indeed, one wonders if Keepers was not the model for Thomas Harris' Silence of the Lambs? […] I can't help thinking that William Hjortsberg's cult mystery-horror novel, Falling Angel, would not have been written without It Happened in Boston?

Though ... Boston? has inspired other original and brilliant thrillers, there still isn't another book like it. It stands alone. Greenan's other books stand apart, too. I can't recall other contemporary books that have combined horror with comedy so inventively. It is time for Russell H. Greenan to take his place as one of the most original and entertaining writers in genre fiction and for It Happened in Boston? to rank as one of the 10 best mystery novels of the 20th century.