Friday, May 11, 2012

FFB: The Secret Life of Algernon Pendleton - Russell H. Greenan

Algernon Pendleton's best friend is Eulalia. They have intimate conversations. She advises him on life's dilemmas. He compliments her on her musical voice and beautiful porcelain. That's not a porcelain complexion, though. That's literally porcelain. Eulalia, you see, is a Worcester pitcher. And she talks. But only to Algernon.

Russell Greenan's fourth book The Secret Life of Algernon Pendleton (1973) is a rarity in the crime fiction world that these days clings to gritty and violent realism. It's a wryly humorous book and a wondrous amalgamation of the fantastic and the criminal. It's all done stylishly in the literate sometimes fussy voice of Algernon, Al to his friends, who narrates the novel.

Al may have spent far too much time alone in the house he inherited from his famous great grandfather, a noted Egyptologist. In his loneliness he has found companions in the hundreds of objects and a few plants that fill the cavernous home. The house has become a veritable museum of valuable and rare antiquities and treasures of the pharaohs. When Al's finances are in danger of plummeting to the poverty level he helps himself to one or two of those treasures, takes a trip to Mahir Suleyman's junk/resale shop where they haggle over a price, and Al leaves with a chunk of change in his pockets. Life is easy - chats with Eulalia, a few gossipy whispers from the philodendrons, selling an ushabti or statuette of Bast every now and then. Then Norbie drops in unexpectedly for a visit.

Norbie is apparently Al's only human friend. They go back several years to their army days. Norbie saved Al from drowning after their ship was bombed in the Pacific. Al owes a lot to Norbie. And when he comes with suitcases in hand and a hard luck story of a failed marriage and failing health Al can't turn him out. Norbie becomes his roommate for an indeterminate stay. One night Norbie introduces Al to the lost art of drinking absinthe (complete with sugar cube and special spoon) and when Norbie goes to retrieve that cursed liquor from his suitcase he inadvertently reveals a huge cache of money - $60,000 to be exact. The next day Al confesses his wonder at the mysterious amount of money to Eulalia and she begins to fill his head with criminal ideas.

Mahir will figure prominently in the tale. As will Madge Clerisy, a woman professor of archeology, who is suspicious of a junk store that has a regular supply of extremely rare Egyptian artifacts. Al succumbs to the temptations of Eulalia but gets in way over his head. Soon all three are inextricably linked in a conspiracy of blackmail and extortion. And there I had better stop. To reveal any more would ruin a reader's own discovery of the ingenuity and sheer originality of the story.

Greenan's first book It Happened in Boston? (1968) is something of a cult novel uniquely mixing the surreal, the absurd and the sinister in what has become his trademark in these rather hard to classify books. He went on to write several books each one utterly strange, utterly different. The Queen of America (1972) details the story of a couple of too smart for their own good teenagers, one of whom has a nasty habit of making tape recordings of his neighbors conversations, and the menacing female motorcyclist who becomes part of their lives. In Heart of Gold (1975), a story similar to Anthony Rolls' The Vicar's Experiment (aka Clerical Error), we learn of the life of a duplicitous, sometimes murderous, minister. Another story of antiques, theft and murder is The Bric-a-Brac Man (1976), a book which reveals Greenan's arcane knowledge of Japanese netsuke and the world of antiques in which he spent some time as a buyer and seller. Some of his latest fiction is now available via Smashwords. His work is vastly underrated and one of those rare writers who once sampled will be savored.  I guarantee after reading any one of his books you'll be back for more.

 For more about Russell H. Greenan visit this tribute website owned and maintained by his relatives.


  1. Another delectable and way too enticing review John - In fact, I've just ordered IT HAPPENED IN BOSTON - cheers mate (my brain thanks you while my wallet reels)

    1. I thought for sure this book would incite a flurry of comments based on the opening paragraph alone. Ah well. My tastes in crime fiction do tend to run to the thoroughly weird and offbeat. I'm learning that most people shy away from the "strange" books. Their loss. Glad I tempted at least one reader. Just finished THE QUEEN OF AMERICA by Greenan and it too has some odd moments but it's much darker and bleaker in tone than this one.

    2. My copy of BOSTON just arrived yesterday in a fairly nice hardback so am really looking forward to delving in - thanks John, as always!

  2. I'm not really ever enthusiastic about books where the main character is a small time (or even a bit time) crook or gets sucked in by greed and whatnot into becoming a crook. I lose interest fairly rapidly.

    But I like the idea of a talking pitcher. I mean, why not?

  3. Bought a copy of this in the late 80's (the edition pictured). It sat on my bookshelf for 8 or 9 years before I got around to reading it. Loved it. This and It Happened in Boston are two of my favorite novels. Whenever the topic of books comes up in a conversation I mention Greenan. I don't know why he doesn't have a larger following.