I first read The Red Right Hand (1945) by Joel Townsley Rogers about a decade ago — maybe more, maybe less, it’s fitting given the nature of the narrative herein that I’m a little hazy on the precise details. I’m unsure how it came to my attention, but I do know that I had expected a traditional suspects-murder-investigation-solution structure and that, when the book absolutely did not deliver this, it proved to be a frustrating read. This reissue by the American Mystery Classics range, then, was to be celebrated for a chance to re-evaluate the novel — my previous copy having gone who knows where — knowing what I was getting. And, well, it is still a frustrating read.
It must, I imagine, be difficult for an author to turn their conception of a brilliant murder scheme into a novel of suspects who warrant investigation and drop all manner of clues on the way to a surprising solution. It’s probably quite easy to do this and have the solution fail to surprise — quick, think of a book with an outcome you predicted by the 20% mark — but to overlay a dizzying series of inferences subtle enough to mislead, and to do so in a manner that is unpicked organically within the universe of the book being written, is, I’m sure, hard in the extreme. The Genius Detective of yore was no doubt invented as one way around this — picking up on the obscure and oblique inferences that, while technically fair, remain beyond the ken of the Normal Man and so retain your brilliant surprise. And sometimes, well, sometimes a different approach is called for…
It is entirely Rogers’ prerogative to opt for a sort of intuitionist realisation to untangle this devious tale of a murderous tramp running amok in the backwoods of Connecticut, but such a clever scheme deserved better. In order for the impressionistic means used by our narrator Dr. Harry Riddle not to jar too violently with the preceding mayhem, the book itself is written in a hazy, impressionistic manner that becomes wearisome even as Rogers’ beautiful prose makes it compelling reading. For a genre which relies so keenly on the haptic perception of its practitioners in juggling tone and content, the careening approach of Rogers left me feeling a little carsick at times, with the jumbled ordering of events little more than a dreamscape framing to add a nightmarish quality that, honestly, straight chronological telling would have easily provided.
With the notion of identity key to the heart of the whodunnit genre, it is apt that this book is somewhat mired betwixt several types of novel. Surrealistic one moment, oddly pedantic the next, this is a narrative form that wishes to promise you a cake, for you to get the cake, for the cake to be eaten, for the easting of the cake to be enjoyable, and for the cake to both exist afterwards and for the making of the cake in the first place not to be necessary. For instance, following a very specific exchange in Latin — Latin! — between two characters, the dreamy nature of the plotting jams its foot down with a frustrating insistence on definite, concrete intangibility:
…of course, she may have merely imagined it. He may have been saying something else, actually. Or nothing at all…
Rogers wants the events to be both part of and dissociated from his plot, and so everything is overlayed with a waking dream style semi-reality. A curious feeling of deja vu is ground under the heel of the text so that simple actions can be told again and again and again — in part, I can’t help but feel, to broaden this relatively compact story into something approaching the length of a novel. Goddamn, there is a lot of repetition. You’re told the same thing several times. Over and over again, events are relayed with possibly slight changes, or it might just be that the order of events is changed so that, mesmerically, you are informed again and again of something you’re already been told elsewhere. Some things you are told once — no-one can turn walking down a road to a house into five pages quite like Rogers — but elsewhere, whew, are you told the same things lots of times. If you’re worried you might have missed a detail early on, worry not, as there will like be a reprise of the same information. Probably several times.
It gets tedious.
Additionally, Rogers is playing a double game of trying to lead you, as all the best detective fiction writers do, into a game of self-doubt. That conclusion is to be surprising, remember, and so you must play with the reader’s expectations. The first time I read this I allowed Rogers to lead me into the assumption he wanted — as did everyone on their first encounter, don’t deny it — and at this second juncture I realise just how horribly false so much of his behaviour feels to allow this. Riddle’s complete non-reaction to finding an item of his own clothing that he assumed was back home in New York in the middle of this murder scheme in a different state makes me suspect that the narrative repeats itself so much because he was huffing the fumes from his exhaust pipe. And everyone has some distinct problem with their eyesight but none of them wear glasses — you’d assume this was some parody on the quality of the driving in Connecticut if it wasn’t so po-faced.
The solution, with all the finely-placed indicators tumbling into Riddle’s brain for no reason other than Rogers has placed them all in the narrative, takes up 40 of the 230 pages of this edition. There are so many clues, we even get a few more spouted at us by the killer for good measure when they realise the game is up. It’s borderline genius in execution, but the manner of its reveal does feel like an apologia for the experience that has just tempered you…and, let’s be honest, I don’t think the explanation, tumbling as it does in (surprise!) repeated statements of events previously witnessed, is really all that clear (despite all the repetition, what this really needs is a map). To me, it all also felt oddly distant, but this might come in part from this book not containing characters so much as people-shaped objects who spout dialogue in various forms of emotional upheaval.
So, upon second visitation, I like Rogers’ nightmare more than I did, but I dislike it in new ways, too. It’s a wild ride that travels in circles, a staggering piece of ratiocination without a thought in its head, a serious and sombre tale of murder and madness that ends with a literal banana-skin pratfall. Something so difficult to pin down will delight as much as it frustrates, and I can see opinions on this one being all over the map. Maybe this is what madness feels like…
Ben @ The Green Capsule: [H]oly hell, this is strong book, and the ending is outstanding. I finished this two weeks ago, and yet every moment of the book – every turn of that road and fallen leaf in that forest – is still as visceral as anything I’ve read lately, and honestly, I’m on a tear of incredible reads. Oh, and the bit about the “red right hand” and its significance? Absolutely beautiful. I was kicking myself for not seeing that bit coming.
Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime: For me, if the text had been less [Harry Stephen] Keeler-like and had a more linear writing style, then I would have enjoyed the Christie/Carr like puzzle even more. As it was, the puzzle saved the story from being an unredeemable dire read. Perhaps Rogers’ writing style is something akin to marmite and it just didn’t fully work for me. I often found it too descriptive, as well as repetitive and ponderous and there were points when I felt bored. Dr Riddle takes a very long time to tell a short story and if the writing style is your cup of tea, then you’ll enjoy the ride it takes you on.