In his review, printed on the 13th May 1945 in the San Francisco Chronicle, Anthony Boucher comments that this book, ‘this logical nightmare is completely undefinable and incapable of synopsis.’ That always bodes well when you have to write your own review, so I decided to see what synopses there were for this title. My own copy of Rogers’ mystery is the Blue Murder edition and they give a rather straight forward summary:
‘The tramp was a strange, twisted little man with a torn ear and sharp dog-like teeth. Elinor and her fiancé, oil millionaire Inis St. Erme, had picked him up on their way to Vermont to be married, but when they stopped for a picnic a violent quarrel broke our between St. Erme and the tramp, and Elinor fled in panic. Harry Riddle finds her, distraught and terrified, but when they return to the spot they find nothing but a sinister pool of blood.’
This is clear and easy to understand, but its very simplicity actually makes it a rather misleading synopsis, which overlooks the plot’s more bamboozling facets. So I then turned my attention to the blurb on the American Mystery Classic edition; a reprint which won the Reprint of the Year award last year:
‘After the death of Inis St. Erme, Dr. Henry Riddle retraces the man’s final moments, searching for the moment of his fatal mis-step. Was it when he and his bride-to-be first set out to elope in Vermont? Or did his deadly error occur later–perhaps when they picked up the terrifying sharp-toothed hitch-hiker, or when the three stopped at “Dead Bridegroom’s Pond” for a picnic?
As he searches for answers, Riddle discovers a series of bizarre coincidences that leave him questioning his sanity and his innocence. After all, he too walked those wild, deserted roads the night of the murder, stranded and struggling to get home to New York City. The more he reflects, his own memories become increasingly uncertain, arresting him with nightmarish intensity and veering into the irrational territory of pure terror–that is until an utterly satisfying solution emerges from the depths, logical enough to send the reader back through the narrative to see the clues they missed.’
This I think comes closer to encapsulating not just what the book is about, but also how the story is told. Regardless, when reading this book, you need all your wits about you!
One thing you will soon notice about this book is that it is largely, (especially at the start), told in long run-on sentences, reminiscent of the stream of consciousness writing style, frequently used in Modernist literature. This brings a sense of urgency to the narrative of Dr Harry Riddle, our narrator, as he tries to get down the initial facts of the situation. However, despite being a doctor and wishing to get things written in a concise and orderly fashion, this delivery of information is disorientating and chaotic. Though you can argue this more realistically reflects the traumatic experience he has been through. Nevertheless, I would not recommend reading this book when you’re tired as Rogers unfurls some very long sentences in the opening chapters. The longest one I noted was 33 lines long and such passages with many multi-clause sentences were quite hard going at times, especially when it felt like they were saying very little.
Consequently, it takes a while to piece together what events have occurred and in what order they have happened in, as events that happened more recently are briefly referred to but not placed into the sequence until much later in the narrative. The central impossibility also emerges, which is making Dr Riddle so anxious. The car which the tramp is supposed to have wildly driven off in, with Inis in the passenger seat has been seen by various witnesses going along a country road, causing devastation as it went. Yet Dr Riddle was on a section of this road for over an hour and never saw it. This and other pieces of information put Dr Riddle in a tight spot.
Given the stream of consciousness trend of the writing style Dr Riddle’s recounting of events is not exactly linear and manages to provide very clipped details, in a verbose manner. It actually takes most of the book for Dr Riddle to finally mention all the events which have occurred, up to the point of him writing down his story and there is often a cyclical feel to the narrative, which returns to certain events several times. Dr Riddle’s first-person narration is unusual in that it talks about events he could not have been at, but in a such way that the details mentioned make it seem like he was.
Anthony Boucher in his monthly article for the San Francisco Chronicle, printed on the 30th December 1945, chooses Roger’s novel as one of four books which ‘should appear with fair regularity on all future reading lists of the whodunit.’ Boucher goes on to sum up the story as a ‘macabre tour de force’ and in his review of the book earlier that year he wrote that:
‘Mr Rogers (a long-standing pulp master new I believe to the form) has taken the terrible tension of Woolrich-Irish, the fertile plot imagination of Keeler, the technical ingenuity of Christie and the stern deductions of Carr and a timeless twisted stream-of-consciousness narrative method of his own and produced something unique and exciting.’
Boucher likens Rogers to several authors in this passage and I don’t think these comparisons are inaccurate as taken individually, I can see aspects of these writers’ work in Roger’s tale. My difficulty is, is that whilst Boucher finds the overall effect a positive one, I have to admit to struggling with it. For me, if the text had been less 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. The Criminal Record in The Saturday Review sort of touches upon this when it writes that The Red Right Hand is an ‘effective amalgam of terror and mystery, with accent on former. Gets out of hand occasionally but total effect is satisfactorily shiversome.’ But if you’re like me, and the writing does not click for you, then up until the last 40 pages you’ll might find yourself looking at your watch a little. I found this a real shame as there are so many aspects of this book which indicate it should be my type of mystery.
I would be interested to hear how solvable other readers felt the mystery was. I do not think Rogers is unfair in the amount of information he provides, as the solution dovetails with details provided earlier in the text. But I wonder how accessible these details are, given the readability of the prose they are planted into. I didn’t fall into the trap of believing the obvious red herring which the narrative tries to ram down our throats, yet reading the story felt like wading through dense undergrowth, to the extent that trying to consider what else might be going on, was rather difficult. That might be the point of course, but once I finished the book I came to this conclusion:
I really liked the solution and thought it wonderfully clever, but I strongly wished I had enjoyed the journey to the solution so much more than I did.
It is that discrepancy in enjoyment which made this a book a far less enjoyable read than I hoped it would be. I appreciate that a lot of people are huge fans of this book and I really wanted to be one of those people too. JJ at The Invisible Event will be reviewing this title on Thursday, so I am intrigued to see what he makes of it. Given our track record of having opposing views on most books, I predict he will love this one or that he will dislike the solution and love the prose style.
Rating: 4.5/5 (for Plot Sneakiness and Solution) 3/5 (Reading enjoyment)
3.75/5 (Final rating)