A CAN OF WORMS By Russell Greenan Bantam. 214 pp. Paperback, $3.50
There is something wrong with a world in which Russell Greenan is not a household name. Or at least one would wish that the originality he consistently displays in his novels would be rewarded by more fanfare when they do come out.
Beginning with "It Happened in Boston" in 1968, a Greenan cult formed. I didn't stumble upon it until a few years later when the perverse pleasures of the irresistibly titled "The Secret Life of Algernon Pendleton" sent me in search of any other Greenans available.
Now, not everyone will thrill to the story of a madman (the titular Pendleton) and his unlikely partner in crime -- a talking china pitcher. Those who do, however, will surely not be satisfied until that particular combination of exceedingly deft black humor, mayhem and capital "E" Eccentricity is in front of them again.
So for newcomers to the semisecret world of Russell Greenan, the truth is that "A Can of Worms" is about as good as he gets: I'd almost go so far as to call it a small masterpiece. To be able to pull off scenes of shocking violence, and to have this violence seem somehow logical, all the while maintaining an insouciant, even droll, authorial voice -- well, it's hard to wince and chuckle at the same time, but Greenan makes us do it.
The setting is Boston, and the characters an interlocked bunch, including two policemen, a nymphomaniac, her politician brother and a dead motel clerk whose hobby was collecting photographs of unsuspecting subjects. He died of natural causes, but no one else in "A Can of Worms" has similar luck.
Because one of the cops, Kevin Reedy, has a sentimental friendship with the ambitious pol, Philip Delaunay, that goes back to their youth, he allows himself to be drawn into a murder cover-up. It seems that Missy Delaunay, a magnet for trouble, has just shot a blackmailer, and Phil is quite certain the ensuing scandal won't help his senatorial chances.
But when he sends Kevin off to clean up the mess, it hasn't occurred to him that his sister's impetuousness might be greater than her marksmanship and that the victim might not be dead.
How Kevin, putting loyalty before the law he's sworn to uphold, handles the wretched situation is what sets the novel on its course. Missy, meanwhile, has her own agenda, and hires one of her occasional bedmates, a sadist and professional killer named Stanley Gloag, to eliminate anyone who can connect her with the crime.
Naturally, the more murders there are, the more complicated it gets. The proverbial can of worms. Pretty soon, in fact, it's a sort of three-ring circus of homicidal activity, with expediency the order of the day. Not only that, but everyone is using or manipulating someone else, and even the innocent -- like Magda Margolis Gilman, widow of the blackmailer, and her lover Frankie Gates, another Irish cop -- aren't very good risks, actuarially speaking.
Greenan weaves each vignette with deadpan gusto. There's the moment when the dope-smoking laundromat attendant confronts a corpse:
"Through the open door he backed, but to his horror something grabbed him by the nape of the neck and prevented his retreat. He let out a yelp and wriggled like a belly dancer, and this energetic activity soon revealed the cause of this problem. The Walkman wire had tangled itself around the car's shift, and it was the metal band of his headphones that had clutched him by the throat."
Or here's a public-spirited vagrant trying to explain to the skeptical Frankie Gates what unnatural things he's witnessed:
"That right, Whitey?" said Gates. "What kind of hat was the head wearing? A derby?"
"Not the head, Lieutenant -- the husky guy. He was wearing the hat. Wasn't no derby. I don't know what you'd call it. But I seen it all. First he made this big fire, and then he threw the cut-off head on top of it ... in a shopping bag with a lot of blood. The smell was terrible. Nobody lives in the house. It's by the Fens. Kind of creepy, but nice and warm on a cold night. Me and Samantha, we crawled in a cellar window."
Yet underneath all this gore, one senses that Greenan is not a typewriter psychopath but instead a mild-mannered man who relishes unwholesomeness and likes to examine the more intriguing human perversions, rather like an entomologist with fresh specimens. Or you might say that Greenan's fiction resembles shaggy-dog stories that take no hostages.
In "A Can of Worms," one particular worm eventually turns. This isn't surprising, although the reader may be a bit punchy by the time it happens. But that's true of all of Greenan's novels, and it's part of the fun. While he doesn't pander to his readers, he does believe in tying up loose ends pretty neatly, and you can be sure that, even if you're reeling, you'll appreciate his last twists and bits of finesse.
Doubtless I won't be able to convince everyone that Russell Greenan is a genius at macabre comedy, but those who go off to find his books will decide for themselves -- that is, if they're not too squeamish, or too ticklish. The reviewer is the author of "Crime on Her Mind" and "Momilies: As My Mother Used to Say.