THE RED RIGHT HAND (1945) by Joel Townsley Rogers

The Alphabet of Crime community meme over at the Mysteries in Paradise blog has reached the letter R, and my second nomination this week, also eligible under the guidelines of Bev’s 2011 Mystery Readers Challenge, is …

THE RED RIGHT HAND by Joel Townsley Rogers

“… surely one of the dozen or so finest mystery novels of the 20th century.” - Jack Adrian

There are prolific mystery writers, of great and small acclaim, who become defined by just one work – I’m not thinking of Helen Eustis and her sole adult contribution to the genre, the groundbreaking The Horizontal Man (1946), nor of distinctive but only belatedly recognised authors such as John Franklin Bardin. Rather there are those who, for various reasons, despite producing a number of offerings over their careers, only became popularly known for a small or even single portion of it. In some cases this is just an indication of capitalising on commercial success, as in Robert ‘Psycho’ Bloch for instance, but there are others only known to cognoscenti except for one exceptional title  - and Joel Townsley Rogers is certainly one of those authors.

A hugely prolific writer of short stories and novellas for the pulps over several decades, Rogers wrote hundreds of them in the course of his career but is really only known for the second of his four full-length novels, The Red Right Hand (1945). Like the work of the aforementioned Bardin and Fredric Brown, this is a an eccentric and truly unforgettable book that combines complex yet unfussy prose with a weird and wonderful plot to produce a really distinctive and distinguished work. Summarising the story is really hard if one wants to do it justice, not least because the main character seems to spend the whole time trying and failing to do just that in an effort to make sense of the extraordinary nightmare he is participating in.

“I must not permit such slight and meaningless sounds to distract me from the problem”

Dr Henry N. Riddle Jr is a brain surgeon who has been in Vermont attending to a patient, unsuccessfully. Driving through Connecticut on his way back home to New York, his car breaks down in the middle of the countryside. After a long walk he is able to find the country retreat of Professor Adam MacComerou, the first in a long-line of strange and strangely named characters that populate this story: there is Mr Quelch the garrulous postmaster, John Flail the Seminole Indian, Grigori Unistaire the surrealist painter, Mr Hinterzee the terrified neighbour, Elinor Darrie the innocent virgin on her way to get married, Inis St. Erme, her millionaire boyfriend who is now missing; and Doc, nicknamed ‘Corkscrew’, the hitchhiking tramp with red eyes, sharp pointy teeth, short legs, a torn ear who sports a blue hat with the brim cut away in saw-tooth scallops. ‘Corkscrew’ hitched a lift with the couple, then attacked St Erme and Darrie when they stopped for a picnic at the ominously named ‘Dead Bridegroom’s Pond’ – then drove off with the man still in the car, leaving the terrified girl hiding in the bushes. Eventually St Erme’s body will be recovered from a swamp, with the eponymous right hand hacked off.

The book has a powerful, oneiric, even hallucinatory feel to it and Rogers shows a real talent in bringing the countryside to life in a bewitching and sinister fashion that is truly seductive. The narrative has a peculiar logic all its own, painting a universe in which bizarre coincidences abound and which seem to be calmly accepted – such as when it is discovered that ‘Corkscrew”s distinctive hat, described nearly a dozen times in the course of the book, turns out to have been an old one of Riddle’s, who it also turns out happens to live in the building opposite Miss Darrie, who in fact works for an insurance firm run by a relative of Riddle’s – the same firm that has insured the life of the mechanic that owns the car that ‘Corkscrew’ has driven off in and with which, cackling along the way, he will run over and kill John Flail and Hinterzee’s pet dog!

In absorbing the book for the first time this week, I found myself comparing the experience to that described by the indefatigable Bev at her Reader’s Block of reading William Faulkner’s classic Southern novel, Intruder in the Dust. She loved it but felt she had to deduct a point for the author’s distinctive but undeniably demanding prose style. In one sense, with this book Rogers actually goes one better. Just as the story reaches fever pitch, with mutilated bodies piling up and Riddle ever more disturbed as he tries to get a handle on the increasingly Gothic turn of events, something extraordinary happens – with less that 10,000 words to go, everything snaps into focus. Rogers, without going against anything that has gone before, rather than drown in his torrential prose (there are no chapters at all) and a sea of red herrings, miraculously brings the plot strands together for an utterly satisfying conclusion that really does allow readers to have their cake and eat it. On the one hand (sic) we get a dark and frightening journey into the unknown recesses of the mind as we explore the backwoods of Connecticut, in a style deeply indebted to the stream-of-consciousness of William Faulkner – but we also get the enormous satisfaction of a hideously complex story that instead of imploding under the weight of its bizarre ingredients rises triumphantly to the challenge to deliver a completely satisfying rational conclusion. Whether you choose to believe it is another matter of course. Just how trustworthy is Riddle? You be the judge.

Those interested in other opinions on this work should read some excellent reviews out there in the blogoshpere, most notably Cullen Gallagher’s critique at the bloody marvelous Pulp Serenade and Geoff Bradley’s coverage at the always authoritative Mystery File. In addition there is lots of information on Rogers, including an exhaustive bibliography, at a site created by his son Tom, which can be accessed here. In addition some of Joel Townsley Rogers’ books have been put back into print courtesy of Ramble House – visit their website at: www.ramblehouse.com/jtrogers.htm

This is a real tour de force and definitely the best book I’ve blogged about in 2011 thus far. I recommend it unreservedly.

***** (5 fedora tips out of 5)

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18 Responses to THE RED RIGHT HAND (1945) by Joel Townsley Rogers

  1. Patrick says:

    Ah, I’m afraid this is a book I have yet to get to…

  2. J F Norris says:

    Utterly brilliant. I recommend this book to anyone who is running out of mystery writers and in need of something different. Different, however, is too shallow an adjective to describe this rich and unforgettable book. It is most definitely an acquired taste. Several people I recommended it to did not like it at all. Some people can’t stomach Coleridge or DeQuincey or M.P. Shiel either. All of them have similar dream-like, other worldly prose stylings.

    Eerie coincidence and the strangeness of the blogosphere at work: I was looking for ideas for this week’s Friday’s Forgotten Book and came across my copy of Rogers’ first novel ONCE IN A RED MOON – an equally odd and eerie book. But need to re-read it to give it the best write up. I knew the THE RED RIGHT HAND had been written up at least three times – two of them you mention above – so I definitely crossed that off the list. Still… Rogers is in the air, I guess.

    Trivia: a portion of THE RED RIGHT HAND takes place in Danbury where I lived for two years after I left college. It’s the next town over from my home town of Ridgefield, Connecticut. Haven’t been back since the early 1980s.

    • Hello John, thanks very much for the comments on the book – you are of course quite right, not a book for everyone by any stretch of the imagination – but it’s so rewarding when on those rare occasions that you hear that something is really good and then it actually exceeds our expectations – what a bonus!

  3. TomCat says:

    I think you’re being too generous in giving this book five fedora tips. It’s an engrossing and fascinating read, but it achieves its nightmarish atmosphere mainly by piling one eerie coincidence on another – and none of them really mattered in the end nor are all of them fully explained. This really came across to me as hacky and I think the book is more a curio than a genuine classic.

    • Hello TomCat, thanks for the comments. I suspect that there are many who would agree with you! For me the conclusion, which I found enjoyably complex, is a refinement, a real surprise but an extra none the less – I think you can read all the oddness and strangeness as just obfuscation and just a different way of trying to pull the wool over the reader’s eyes, which would tend to reduce it in one’s estimation, clearly. The reason I liked it so much though is that it didn’t really feel like an author piling on the red herrings but mining a different seam, and obsessively so. I think the plot is good enough to stand up as a weird kind of fair play mystery but its real qualities lie elsewhere and are well and truly above anything one would normally term hack work aren’t they?

      • TomCat says:

        It’s really a matter of personal tastes and what you’re willing to accept, but I’m not very impressed when a mystery writer plots his stories by stringing together one coincidence after another and then offer a solution to the reader that’s almost a complete non sequitur. Everyone can pen down a staggering complex and atmospheric mystery if you go about pilling up eerie chance events and spooky allusions, and then wave them away dismissively or ignore them altogether.

        Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a pretty good and entertaining read, conjuring up the illusion of moving through a nightmare, but, IMHO, it’s undeserving of its classic status.

        • TomCat, thanks so much for your opinions on this work – we are not exactly going to agree but I am really grateful for the comments – and I think that I know what you mean and I think even that I half agree with you on this. I have read several comments on the GAD discussion board that take that exact view about the conclusion and how Rogers constructs his effects in the novel. However, I have to admit that depending on the book I do not always trying too hard to solve an intricate puzzle in the sense of competing with the author. There are some where this seems unavoidable though, as with early Queen and Christie, while when it comes to Carr/Dickson I usually get outfoxed anyway and in a way would be really disappointed if I got the jump on Fell or Merrivale as I expect them to always be too clever for me. But with THE RED RIGHT HAND I didn’t know what to expect going in other than all the rich plaudits I had come across over the years and so was pleasantly surprised when it turned out that several clues were given along the way to the conclusion since it seemed to be a book that might just turn out to be a solipsistic nightmare without too much in the way of rationality (like late Woolrich for instance).

          I would dispute that the conclusion is completely out of left field though – do you really not feel that Rogers laid any foundation for the conclusion? I must admit I didn’t feel that when I finished it at all. I found that several useful hints (and several that are not) are definitely provided along the way, but I probably need to re-read it.

          The big difference for me though, as a fan of Fredric Brown and Faulkner in particular, is that what I really responded to was the authorial voice – I would have really liked it even without the concluding section, which probably tells you more about me than about the book!

      • TomCat says:

        Oh, he definitely dropped a hint here and there, but what are they really worth when the writer just makes up stuff (he doesn’t even bother to explain) simply to distract your attention away from them? That’s not exactly the paragon of GAD plotting. That’s just being plain lazy… at best.

        Yes, I’m aware I’m monotonously repeating myself here, but the manner in which he thinks red herrings should be employed is a big stumbling block for me.

        • Fair enough TomCat – but it’s interesting isn’t it? We both basically liked the book but that aspect of it didn’t bother me one little bit here, though i am far from oblivious to that irritation as it would certainly have really annoyed me in a classic Agatha Christie, no question!!

  4. Bev says:

    After referring to me and my INTRUDER experience, I almost feel like I need to find this one and give it a try. I’m not sure I’m up to another dreamlike/stream of consciousness novel, though. I’m currently trying to make my way through TRISTRAM SHANDY–the grand-daddy (great-grand-daddy?) of stream of consciousness and digression. What was I thinking this year when I signed up for some of these reading challenges?

    • Hello Bev – good to hear from you as ever. Not baiting you, honest! This is a really good book though and compared with the Faulkner let’s say that what it may lack in social significance it more than makes up for in way out plotting! Actually I just bought Shandy myself – I look forward to hearing what you have to say …

  5. Bev says:

    Oh, and I forgot to mention…I’ve got you updated!

  6. Santosh Iyer says:

    I have just finished reading this book and I agree that it is a remarkable and brilliant novel, not to be missed by mystery fans. Unique.
    After the surprise and stunning revelation towards the end, the reader is likely to go back and reread portions to see how it worked out. On rereading, the reader will note that all the clues are there and it is definitely a fair play mystery.
    It is a complex mystery. A factor adding to the complexity is that it is not told linearly in time but jumps back and forth in time. Hence it should be read carefully. It may be necessary to reread it to comprehend it fully and realize its brilliance
    One thing you did not mention is that It may be regarded as a locked room/impossible crime mystery.
    It does deserve 5 fedora tips out of 5 !

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