The Red Right Hand (1945) – Joel Townsley Rogers

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Dr Harry Riddle and Elinor Darrie are sheltering in a remote Connecticut holiday home. Outside lurks a crazed killer. The police are out searching for him. His next target is Elinor, who lies asleep on the couch. Dr Riddle, desperate, trawls back through the nightmarish events of that day in search of answers. Dr Riddle has seen nothing – and yet, the madman’s joyride must have driven right through him. Dr Riddle searches his memories for the killer, and finds only echoes…

In looking at other reviews I’ve noticed that the people who love this book really love it, and they also tend to be the ones who knew the least about it going in. Now I did know a bit about the book – not enough, I thought before starting, to affect my enjoyment. But unfortunately I think it was enough. Maybe I would have loved it if I came in without that knowledge –
– or maybe I would have given up 40 pages in and hurled the book out of the window! I’ll never know!
All I’ll say upfront is – this book presents a narrative made of spiralling stream of consciousness narration, impossible happenings, and wild coincidences. It has elements of horror, but the psychological kind, not the gory kind. If the “synopsis” (such as it is…) or narration sounds appealing to you, you may want to check out after this paragraph. My own experience suggests that the negative framing I’m about to give could tip a reading experience off-balance.
But I’m going to have to be negative about it.
If I haven’t put you off the review, then read on…

At first I was captivated by the book; I love atmosphere, and the book has it in spades. The narration style was distinctive, teasing and compelling, with an odd informal rhythm. Very early on the stream-of-consciousness narration descends into a spiral of nested narratives. Dr Riddle recounts his own tale which contains the story of Elinor Darrie’s love life which contains what her fiance Inis has told her about himself, and it’s hard to know where to begin with believing or disbelieving any of them. Faced with this challenge I think my brain short-cutted it all and decided the least trustworthy one was the author Joel Townsley Rogers – which presents a bit of a problem for maintaining suspension of disbelief. At any rate our narrator Dr Riddle is, even in the best case scenario, not exactly stable. He narrates scenes from Elinor’s narrative with vivid visuals as though he was right there, before insisting that he never saw it himself. He narrates his own memories with matching vividness before giving a worrying reassurance that it all really happened.
Despite the pulp-ish setup of a crazed (and unusual-looking) killer seemingly able to do the impossible, the distance given by the constant intrusion of Riddle as the narrator dampened the thrills, at least until he catches up with the present.

The book does follow a particular thrillerish structure of delivering a new and surprising piece of information at the end of each scene. However, it’s with this habit that the problems started to arise for me. The thing is that every one or two twists either tries to echo an earlier image, or builds towards the same conclusion. The book presents one impression and really, really, really tries to hammer it home. After the first half-dozen or so, these prompted eye-rolls (and swearing in my notebook) rather than surprise. The more apparently shocking the reveal, the more frustrated I became. It felt like I was binge-watching a sitcom where every episode ended with the same joke. Of course the snake has red eyes! Of course the old ax murderer has that name! Unexpected things were happening, but never in an unexpected way. I desperately wanted to read a new “joke”.

So I was not in the mood for the more surreal or over-the-top touches – Basque surrealists dressed like peacocks, the lake where the groom-to-be is attacked being called “Dead Bridegroom’s Lake”, and so on. Joel Townsley Rogers is creating a self-consciously unreal world where coincidences abound. Some of them will be explained – some of them won’t – it’s that kind of book. You have to be on board with that to like it.
Along with the unreal events go unreal characters, and if I don’t believe in the characters I don’t feel frightened for them or worry about their predicament. These ones didn’t behave like humans for even a nanosecond.
I can put up with, or even enjoy, implausibility if there’s some humour to it, but even though the events in the book are so ridiculous that they should be funny… I never found them so. Maybe that’s another consequence of the people never seeming like people.

Ramble House’s cover of one of Joel Townsley Rogers’ other books. I feel the Ramble House cover style would be very fitting for The Red Right Hand, more so than the American Mystery Classics style. Actually, Ramble House has republished the novella length version of The Red Right Hand. I’m curious about it… but not enough to try it.

In some of my favourite mystery books there comes a moment, often after the first third of the book, where the puzzles are spread out before me, and they seem so impossible, so dreamlike, so baffling, that I no longer care about the implausibility of it all. I just can’t wait to see how the author gets out of this one. There’s no moment I love more than realising I have no clue what’s going on, and stepping off the precipice into the madness and trusting the author to catch me. That’s what’s so great about the best Carr novels. Sure, an author can fail the catch sometimes, but when it works it’s amazing.
I suppose in retrospect this book does have that moment. Unfortunately it’s at 85% of the way through, and I had to read the rest of the book to get there. And there was no moment of trust. Implausibility piled on implausibility with no hope of an explanation, and so I didn’t trust the author to deliver one at all. Without my anticipation towards the solution, the climax had less impact.

Should I have trusted him? Was it all worth it in the end? Well, the ending is in fact pretty brilliant, the clueing some of the best I’ve seen, densely packed and hidden by more than just the narrative style. The stream of consciousness flow finally helps rather than hinders, fitting perfectly with the untangling of the reveals. The curious thing is that maybe this wouldn’t have worked without that preceding 85%. You know, it’s so good, you might forget the other 27 unexplained coincidences that were just there for spice, and all the repetition it took to get to the end.

Once again I’ve managed to review a book which impressed me, but which I didn’t enjoy reading. Though here the book prompted both boredom and frustration. This and The Beast Must Die have odd similarities, with highly biased first-person narratives filtering and distancing the events, concealing an unexpected amount of technical work behind the scenes. But where The Beast Must Die was truly a standout, here I think my positive feelings about the ending are enhanced by it emerging from the chaos of the previous narrative, which makes it seem more impressive by comparison.
One thing I can say about it is that it provoked a strong response. Appropriately enough – I felt like I just had to get my thoughts about it written out stream-of-consciousness style, both in my notebook and then in this review.
But unlike Dr. Riddle I bloody edited them!

Other opinions:

Clothes In Books
Fiction Fan Blog
The Green Capsule
In Search of the Classic Mystery
The Invisible Event
James Scott Byrnside
Mysteries Ahoy
Tangled Yarns
Tipping My Fedora

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. JJ

    Yeah, I still can’t work out how I feel about this. I can’t shake the feeling that by juggling the timeline Rogers has given the book a veneer of respectability that it does not deserve — I want a DVD feature that enables me to read it in chronological order before deciding how good it is 🙂

    I reckon I’ll read it once more in the years ahead, and will at that point finally decide if it’s any good.

    1. Velleic

      The review makes me sound more ambivalent about the book than I really was. XD
      One thing that might help would be a friggin’ map, let alone the Memento DVD Extra version. If the vibe must be kept (it seems to be why people love the book so I guess it must) then it can be scrawled on torn notepaper with drops of red on it. And Dr Riddle’s notes, “where i WAS” and “where i NEVER have been”.

      1. JJ

        Yes, a map would be excellent.

        I’m intrigued by the novella version of this, but, having already failed to enjoy the Rogers novella The Hanging Rope, I think I’m better off giving this author a wide berth for a while yet.

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