Russell Wren

Created by Thomas Berger
(1924-2014)

Thomas Berger, one of the most-respected American novelists of the last few decades, and the genre-hopping author of Reinhart in Love, Neighbours and a whole slew of popular bestsellers, including the classic anti-Western, Little Big Man (a favourite of mine), set his sights on the conventions of the P.I. genre, with mixed results. This P.I. screwball parody/travesty Who is Teddy Villanova? (1978), featuring New York eye RUSSELL WREN, was praised by a few critics, but most felt it was overblown, convoluted or, worse, just tedious. Baker and Nietzel, in One Hundred and One Knights, suggested “the murky waters of this narrative” was “unreadable and silly.” Still, Berger stood by it, and even wrote a sequel.

That’ll show you guys!

In his debut, Wren is an unlicensed P.I. with an unlicensed gun who is almost scraping by. He has the usual shabby life, and the usual shabby clients, for the most part, but his M.O. consists mainly of being hit on the head. He’s hired to track down an international criminal, Teddy Villanova, but somehow he keeps getting mistaken for him. The plot swirls and swoops, and doesn’t seem to go anywhere in particular, although Chandler would have been pleased to see so many men coming in so many doors with so many guns… which in turn would have pleased Berger, supposedly a huge fan of Chandler’s.

The follow-up finds Wren shanghaied by a mysterious intelligence agency into investigating the Sebastiani Liberation Front, a terrorist group operating in a tiny country sandwiched somewhere between Austria, Germany, and Czechoslovakia. Maybe Berger was also a fan of Ian Fleming.

UNDER OATH

  • “An anti-hero sandwich of low culture, high browsiness and pop angst.”
    — John Leonard, The New York Times

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Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.

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