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