The Red Right Hand (1945) by Joel Townsley Rogers

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!

Overall Thoughts

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)

26 comments

  1. Given my current distraction level, I best give this a pass until my brain defogs (if that ever happens). I’m even struggling to keep my attention on Death in White Pyjamas which I assumed I’d sail through!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You should have written your review as a single run on sentence!

    It’s been four months or so since I read this and it really lives on well in my memory. While reading the book I was a little frustrated because I was positive that I knew how it would end. Man, those last forty pages were such a surprise! I could never have imagined we’d be given a full on solution of the likes of Carr or Christie. I like this book more and more every time I think about it!

    Liked by 4 people

    • haha yes at one point I did murmur to myself, how did this win a certain award, but I can kind of see why it did, even if I didn’t enjoy it as much as I wanted to.
      It was Boucher’s final article of the year for the paper and he picked four titles he had read that year which he ‘prophes[ied]’ should appear regularly on whodunit reading lists: Margaret Millar’s The Iron Gates, Axel Kielland’s Shape of Danger, A. E. Martin’s The Outsiders and of course The Red Right Hand. His prophecies didn’t really work out with the two titles in the middle being highly obscure. The Red Right Hand and The Iron Gates are better known, but I wouldn’t say they have gotten on to, too many reading lists.

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      • A. E. Martin is a criminally underappreciated Australian mystery writer. Boucher was a big fan of his work and so am I. I’ve reviewed two of his best books in on my blog. The Outsiders is highly original and very well done, though I have yet to write it up on the blog. It’s the story of a motley group of sideshow “freaks” and the murder of one of them. All of his mystery novels deal in some way with the world of entertainment. He was for a time a carnival barker in Australia as well as a magician’s assistant and an actor.

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        • I am not surprised that you have reviewed one of the really obscure books mentioned by Boucher. Though I wouldn’t have batted an eyelid if you had read the Kielland one too. Not tried any of Martin books but that I would say is more through lack of availability.

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  3. I think a lot more highly of it than you do, Kate. I feel it is a tour-de-force and truly original, even though I see the force of your criticism. Once read, never forgotten, that’s for sure.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Given the lovefest that this book has been enjoying recently, this is a courageous review and rating. Also, it discusses head-on and confirms the ‘stylistic’ reservations I had from reading other, more enthusiastic reviews. I do not expect that this title will make it to the top of my TBR any time soon.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. […] 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. […]

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  6. Interesting that this novel won last year’s reprint award – only to garner two lukewarm reviews from you and JJ almost immediately after! I recall enjoying the mystery and its solution – but yes, I also recall finding some parts of the story slightly challenging to wade through. JJ’s reviewing Ethel Lina White next – so we’ll await and see how he fares with one of your favourite authors!

    I’m currently in the midst of what is my first foray into Nordic noir – feeling slightly nervous as to whether I’ll like the solution, and whether I’ll survive the dark journey until then. 😰

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well it makes me feel less alone in my opinion, so JJ’s review was very helpful lol
      But now I am somewhat nervous to see what JJ makes of White’s novel.
      Which Nordic noir novel are you braving at the moment?

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      • Just on rating alone JJ liked it even less than you did, though his rating system doesn’t include half-stars. I wonder also if it’s a novel that doesn’t stand up well on second reading. For me I think much of my positivity the first time round stemmed from the surprise that it turned out more fairly clued than I anticipated – I was slightly sceptical for much of the novel, because of the writing and the thriller-horror elements. But ended the novel with pleasure when I discovered the solution. A second read might be coloured more by the somewhat garish elements that dominate the story, and less by the surprise of the ending!

        I’m left with 100 pages of Ragnar Jonasson’s “Snowblind” – the critics’ comments at the back slightly confuse me, as some praise it for its typical Scandi-noir darkness, while the Christie expert John Curran lauds it as “a modern Golden age mystery”. 🤔 (I’m sure Brad will feel suspicious, given his experiences with Scandi-noir.)

        But I’m glad I picked this up as my first foray, as opposed to Jo Nesbo’s “Snowman” – as I don’t take well to gruesomeness and violence. Thus far, “Snow Blind” isn’t overly violent – the only death thus far involves an old man falling down a flight of steps. Which is quite Golden Age – though I’m holding my breath to see if the nature of the solution is truly Golden age! 🤞🏻

        Liked by 1 person

  7. My reaction was pretty close to yours. I think it’s outstanding as a concept, but falls a bit short in its execution. A little more attention to characterization would have helped. I’d give it a B. But it was a worthy winner of the ROY!

    Liked by 1 person

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