#749: The Red Right Hand (1945) by Joel Townsley Rogers

Red Right Hand

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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…

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See also

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.

34 thoughts on “#749: The Red Right Hand (1945) by Joel Townsley Rogers

  1. I have to say everything I’ve heard about this book suggests the writing style is something of a challenge, the type that either works for you or drives you right up the wall. I’m not a fan of hazy, dreamy stuff as a rule so I don’t feel the need to hunt this down urgently.

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    • The shame of it is, the writing is really the only thing to put people off — the characters have that lurid Pulp air to them, the problem really is great…but, man, the manner of telling will prove such a barrier to so many people who would otherwise get a load out of this.

      Written as a strict chronological story the problem is still a good one, the revelations would still hit, and it would just be more fun. Such a book would, in fact, be the classic this series is aiming to popularise. Alas, the brilliance on display is distracted by the author’s decision to constantly remind you how brilliant he’s being…

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  2. There is something very satisfying about gauging the impact of a book from the effect it has had on a reader’s writing style and mate, you are smothered in Rogers 😉 I read this a decade ago and was enormously impressed by its extraordinary prose and the wicked way Rogers lead me up, down and under the garden path. I dare say the joins / authorial manoeuvres may become visible on a second look. But this was, for me, an example where its unique qualities left me very happy to be led by the hand (sic). Are there any books from that era, other than those by Bardin maybe, that even come close to being this strange and rational at the same time? This is a genre book that I think casts a really unique kind of spell. But as a fan of Fredric Brown, Cornell Woolrich and William Faulkner, I probably would say that…

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    • Haha, I’m smothered in Rogers because I had a quick turnaround from finishing this to reviewing it — indeed, I put it down, read Kate’s review, and then wrote my own right away.

      I enjoyed the sheer density of the clues this time around — it’s really rather magnificent in that regard. I had a vague memory of the solution (the who, sort of the how, vaguely the why) and so could enjoy how subtly Rogers manages to drop in so, so much while stirring the brew. A shame that the stirring is done by restating so much and then sprinkling in additional details, but he’s very obviously written the exact sort of book he wanted to write. Turns out that it’s not entirely to my taste, but everything has its critics 🙂

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  3. Gosh! Your review made me put this book firmly on the list of 30 books to die before you read! If you think you’re being half hearted about it, I’m agog to read your review of a book you don’t like!

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    • I hope to have a theory about the place this book occupies in American Pulp/Detective fiction crossovers in due course, but I’ll need to read a lot more before I get to that stage 🙂 I can, however, see how this book would both utterly delight some and completely infuriate others.

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  4. Interesting that the winner of last year’s Crime Reprint Award garnered two lukewarm reviews just a few weeks later… I recall enjoying its mystery and its solution – but I also wonder if I was impressed by how fairly-clued it was, despite much of the story appearing to operate in a slightly different genre. And so perhaps this is one novel that doesn’t stand up quite so well on a re-read? I shall avoid re-reading it anytime soon!

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    • Ha, it may have won the Reprint of the Year awards simply because so many people were so pleased to see it reprinted: a reputation seems to precede it, and copies are rare, so there was doubtless a collective relief at it finally being so available. Plus, the people who love it are really gonna love it…

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      • That’s why it got my vote. I looked for this sucker for years.
        I liked it a bit more than you JJ (I don’t give demerits for cleverness 😉😱) and I see the stream of consciousness now as in itself a clever red herring.
        I was actually bothered more by the killer’s little speeches at the end, which seem artificial and implausible. Overall my rating is a B.

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          • It reminds me — and I say this as a fan of Steven Moffat — of a lot of the Big episodes that Steven Moffat wrote when he was in charge of Doctor Who: you get to the end and go “Oh, wow…!” but the idea of watching it again isn’t all that appealing.

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  5. Do I crack out the champagne? This being one of those rare moments when our views co-align. I didn’t realise this was re-read for you. I have to say I was not fooled by the obvious inference trap, despite this being my first read. It just seemed too forced an idea, so I was immediately suspicious. That and the fact no one in the book overtly expresses this inference, which you might expect them to do.
    I’ve noticed your next Thursday review book. One of my favourite White novels. It is the one which has the most traditional detective structure, so I think you stand a better chance of enjoying it than say, Some Must Watch. Can’t remember whether you like inverted mysteries or not, but White wrote one in The First Time That He Died – really good read.

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    • You did a better job at avoiding the obvious, then, and I congratulate you on that. I’m a firm believer in “If it’s not said out loud, it’s probably gonna happen”, since that’s been my experience on more than a few occasions (Tokyo Zodiac Murders, take a bow).

      And am I, the world’s newest and most enthusiastic Freeman Wills Crofts and R. Austin Freeman ehthusiast, a fan of the inverted form? Good grief, yes! Great to know there’s another ELW to jump to should FStV prove to my liking — many thanks.

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        • No, this will be my first. I remember hearing of She Faded Into Air when the impossible crime bug first bit me, but then for some reason I doubted that one would qualify and so I never got round to it.

          And The Wheel Spins, having been filmed by Hitch, shoukld have intrigued me but…somehow just never did. Possibly because I find Strangers on a Train such a hard book to like… 🙂

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  6. I think this is one of those books that lives better in memory than in the actual moment of reading it. Like all difficult books, the pleasure from reading it feels like a lot of hard work that may not even be the trouble of the experience, but then it leaves you with a memory of having experienced something genuinely strange and unique.
    I remember reading this early in lockdown when my brain was already a foggy soup, and I remember being confused if this was just an obliviously easy whodunnit or if its obvious sign posting was actually a red herring…or if the red herring was that the writer wants to make you think its a red herring while sneakily coming back at the ending with the obvious answer and so on until the snake ate its tail. I don’t remember much about the novel itself. But yes that feeling of confusion and clarification that hits you like a bright light that all good mystery novels provide, I remember this having it. Would I read it again? Probably not.

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    • it leaves you with a memory of having experienced something genuinely strange and unique.

      This is key, I think — it’s unlike much else, and anyone who loves this kind of thing will struggle to get much from the same bottle elsewhere and so hug it very close to their heart. And there’s no shame in that — love what you love — but I do wonder if that’s what contributes to the reputation it has.

      Interesting to see, though, just how heavy one can clue in a non-typical setup. The formal novel of detection was given a run for its money here, I feel, and if more people could stomach it this would have generated so many imitators and possibly have kicked of a revolution of sorts in the form.

      Alas, not to be.

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      • Well, I was going to post something, but I think you and Zain pretty much nailed what I would have attempted to express.

        The big turnoff for me was what felt like the inevitable twist. I didn’t mind the writing style, but I wasn’t going to sit through 200 pages of it to get that ending! But then, yeah, then I was blindsided by how (somewhat) orthodox the ending was, and just how wonderful to boot. I think you then look back at it all through rose tinted glasses because you got that euphoric ending and you had to work damn hard to get it. Six or so months later and I’m really high on this book.

        I think Rogers published 5-10 other mysteries (can’t recall), but it’s interesting that we never hear anything about them.

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        • The introduction from Joe R. Landsdale is frustratingly vague about what else Roger’s might have written, but it seems there were lots of pulp stories and “at least four other novels”. It would be interesting to know what his other long-from criminous output was, because the mind that concocted this doubtless had some great things going on in it.

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          • Rogers was extremely prolific in the pulps, writing a number of aviation and suspense stories as well as mysteries and a few sci-fi shorts. His son actually maintained a pretty comprehensive bibliography of his father’s works, including details about the novels, here: http://www.3-3-3.org/TNRR/jtrpubs.html.
            I’m among those who really love The Red Right Hand, for a variety of reasons. I would also recommend the novella “The Hanging Rope,” which I also gushed about on my blog. I confess that Rogers’ style is a big reason for my interest, but I can see how it may not work for some. The Ramble House collection “Killing Time” contains a short version of “The Red Right Hand”‘ as well as a really good suspense tale “My Friend Death”, and a decent (if I recall) impossible short, “The Hiding Horror.” I have yet to acquire his other Ramble House collection.

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            • Ah, wonderful, thank-you for the link — I’ve had a quick sweep and the man really did write a lot. I can’t say I’ll be rushing out to find any of his other novels (certainly not based on some of the reviews quoted at the above…!) but if something became available and was recommended by trustworthy sources I wouldn’t shy away from more Rogers — he was obviously a talented writer, and it’d be interesting to see how he applied himself over the long-form elsewhere.

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  7. Playing catch-up here (been a busy week) but while we feel quite differently about how we rate this book, I can’t really disagree with anything you say. This book has such a heavy-handed style that you will either love it or hate it and I fell strongly into the former camp. The repetition was hypnotic and I loved the way it played with the idea that he was being driven mad by the difficulty in reconciling his own account and those of the other witnesses.
    That being said, I am interested at your idea that the story would still work told in chronological order. I suspect that the solution would become a little clearer (and the book would obviously be shorter) and possibly that would emphasize the thriller aspects. I can see it working, though I would probably like it a little less.

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    • It would doubtless be shorter, but this started life as a short story anyway, right? The idea works for a shorter form. We have all seen novels made out of short stories that end up ful of padding, and this is just another example of that.

      The point was made somewhere that this is probably an excellent audiobook, and I’d agree with that. As a trad novel, I remain on the fence.

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