There is one thing that is most important, in all the dark mystery of tonight, and that is how that ugly little auburn-haired red-eyed man, with his torn ear and his sharp dog-pointed teeth, with his twisted corkscrew legs and his truncated height, and all the other extraordinary details about him, could have got away and vanished so completely from the face of the countryside after killing Inis St. Erme.
Joel Townsley Rogers started out writing poetry but spent the bulk of his career slaving away in the pulp ghetto, where he wrote hundreds of stories for the science fiction, air-adventure, and mystery pulps. Of novels he wrote only four, and it seems that the second is the only fiction he wrote that is well-remembered these days: 1945’s The Red Right Hand. It was well-received in its day and considered one of the genuine classics of the mystery genre, due to its unique perspective and tightly plotted mystery. Mystery critic Anthony Boucher heaped praise upon it, saying “This logical nightmare is completely undefinable and incapable of synopsis…something unique and exciting.” And it continues to impress to this day; see three earlier takes on this book by Past Offences, Tipping My Fedora, and Pulp Serenade, reviews that put this book on my radar.
Dr. Henry N. Riddle, Jr., New York brain surgeon on the way home from a failed surgery, is forced to approach this chilling story again and again, attacking it from every angle in hopes of making sense from the improbable nightmare he’s become a part of. Young millionaire Inis St. Erme and his fiancee Elinor Darrie started off in a borrowed car to Vermont to elope, and on the way picked up a shady-looking hitchhiker known only as Doc, or “Corkscrew” because of his odd gait and twisted corduroy trousers. Later, the young couple decided to hold a sun-set picnic on a dead-end road in rural Connecticut, overlooking Dead Bridegroom’s Pond. That much is known. Also well-known is the aftermath of Corkscrew’s rampage, where he made off with the car, struck down the half-Indian John Flail, ran over the Wiggins’ St. Bernard, killed St. Erme and made off with his dismembered right hand. What Riddle can’t figure out is why. What caused this gory rampage? Why hack off St. Erme’s hand, and where did it go? And, most of all, how did he escape from a dead-end country road, when Riddle himself had the only exit blocked all evening while working on his stalled-out car?
Thus begins an ethereal thrill-ride that will make modern thrillers blanch, an elliptical take on the psychological thriller that also plays by the Golden Age mystery rules of fair play. Reading The Red Right Hand is like waking from the dreamlike haze of a concussion, only to find yourself in a chaotic nightmare where up is down and down is death and everything is working to unsettle the reader. The prose casts a beautiful spell, intoxicating the reader in lush atmospheric and a vocabulary that flaunts every inch of Rogers’ origin as a poet. The writing is a pseudo-stream-of-consciousness style that owes as much to Henry James and William Faulkner as it does to Bierce’s “Incidence at Owl Creek Bridge” and Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart.” And there are no chapters, so the book flows on like a torrential river; you may realize this too late, when you’re already swept into its hold and have no choice but to ride it out to the end.
Coincidences begin to pile into coincidences, simultaneously red herrings and clues which unlock the murderer’s secrets. Riddle’s Manhattan apartment is across the street from Elinor’s, and Corkscrew’s hat turns out to be an old one of Riddle’s donated to the Salvation Army. One of the locals, Professor MacComerou, wrote the textbook on Homicidal Psychopathology that Riddle studied in college. St. Erme and his fiancée were travelling north to stay at the home of the same man Riddle was to perform surgery on. This may be where most readers lose the novel, but to me it added to the unsettling unease, the lack of rational order by which this world operates. It’s up to the reader to question the plot, as Riddle is too busy making soft excuses or mutely pointing out his alibis—he had never seen St. Erme before now. Did not know the man Doc, or Corkscrew. And most of all, is sure he did not see the murder car pass him by. Very early on, these coincidences arise with such a suspicious, calculated that you wonder if our narrator Riddle is as reliable as he seems, or if he happens to be the crazed killer himself. And the book still has other tricks to play.
You’re never quite sure what is real and what is fiction, the spiraling narrative explaining every valued clue while obfuscating reality. The characters’ names are even as otherworldly as the writing style—Riddle, St. Erme, Hinterzee, Flail, MacComerou the professor, Quelch the postmaster, Grigori Unistaire the surrealist painter. Between the obfuscation and the chaos, the frantic search for a killer out in the Connecticut woods, you become hypnotized by the way the novel presents even its smallest, seemingly unimportant details. One small piece that others may overlook jumped out at me: around 7% of the way into the story, Riddle mentions a newspaper headlined “HONSHU INVADED!”—not just a piece of historical flavor, as the United States never invaded the Japanese home islands during the war. Was this an attempt to give the novel a contemporary feel, setting the book in the near-future with the news stories Rogers predicted would be real by time of publication? Or is this one of many subtle indicators that not everything is right here? That not all is as it seems?
Despite all this, I did mention it plays by the rules of fair play, didn’t I? It does, but it’s the damned oddest Golden Age mystery I’ve ever read—it’s more in line with the psychological thrillers and suspense novels which followed in its footsteps, playing with the reader’s perception, keeping you unbalanced and on your toes for the killer, all the while shuffling key information before your eyes. It’s all light and shadow, a trick of the eye. That, I think, is why it’s still so well-known—it is unique in the mystery field for its use of perception and chaos, its stream-of-consciousness style and recurring motifs. If this had been a straight whodunit—or a mainstream psychological thriller—it would lack the raw power and brilliance Rogers somehow imbued in it, and The Red Right Hand would become just another mere book.
The Red Right Hand is a hypnotic and illusory stew of key elements: constant repetition of motifs and themes, the power of Roger’s impressive vocabulary, a gripping opening sequence and gruesome murder, a pace both breathless and unstoppable. It is unrelenting, one of those books that you really ought not to put down until you’ve picked its bones clean and sucked out the marrow. It is a unique and brilliant experience, a thrill-ride of murder and mayhem and mystery second to none. There’s really nothing else like it out there—or if there is, please tell me about it. In the superb introduction, Martin Edwards mentions that Rogers was “appalled” that this would be the novel he is remembered by. But there are far worse books to be remembered for, and few of them are as vivid or—well, perfect, as this one. I cannot recommend it enough, and will continue to both be haunted by it and sing its praises.