April 2, 2020

Short Cuts - "The Hanging Rope" (1946) - Joel Townsley Rogers

"It is, in all ways, a genuine tour de force... Pulp writing of the very highest order, it careers along at a breakneck pace and ends with an awe-inspiring twist. In a phrase, sheer class." Jack Adrian

It's no secret to anyone who's read the inaugural post of the blog that I regard Joel Townsley Rogers' novel The Red Right Hand as one of my all-time favorite books in any genre, containing as it does a finely-balanced mix of things I find most compelling in literary art: a puzzling mystery, a well-wrought atmosphere of foreboding and dread, nuanced and evocative prose, elements of the surreal and the absurd, and experimentation with form (specifically, narrative). After re-reading it this past October, I found it inexplicable that I had never sought out any of Rogers' other work, when I remembered that I actually not only had a copy of his story "The Hanging Rope" (in Adrian & Adey's Murder Impossible anthology), but I had read it several years ago and retained a positive, if vague, impression of it. Eventually I got to digging back into it, and man is it a good one. 

"He had found the switch... The blackness in the bedroom of death seemed to split apart in shadows that leaped and rushed in headlong frantic race, like a flock of shadowy greyhounds, like wild horses rushing darkly."

Someone has murdered old Dan McCue and an unknown girl just after midnight at the Royal Arms apartment house in Chicago. There is "nothing complicated about the killings," which are "classics of crime simplicity," save for the fact that the apartment is found with doors and windows locked and the killer is nowhere to be found, a figure "as invisible as smoke or mist... As thin and sharp as the steel he used on that girl's warm throat" just seconds before the police arrived at the door. The murder is discovered by Tuxedo Johnny Blythe, former "Tuxedo cop" and ex-son-in-law of McCue as he drops by for an unexpected visit. Blythe quickly begins his own investigation with the help of a suspicious patrolman, Slipsky. Meanwhile, across the alley in a rented room in a run-down tenement, the deaf playwright Kerry Ott works with complete absorption on his latest play, seemingly completely unconnected to the gruesome events... or is he?

"He liked to work in small, closed places, with a draftless stillness all about him and by artificial light - as remote as the silent center of the earth, lit by the flare of the never-setting sun, which burns pallidly and forever at the core of
things, and where no wind blows."

The early parts of the narrative detail the crime, and follow the movements of old Dan's final two visitors of the night, the last people known to have seen him alive - the "Beanpole", Paul Bean, another ex-son-in-law of Dan's who is also his lawyer, and the "Cat man", Father Finley, a strange little man with an affinity for stray cats who may not even be a priest. As shown by the appellations given these two men, Rogers tends to sow a kind of mysterious aura around his characters by certain odd choices of name and description: Big Bat O'Brien of Homicide, "the murder man"; Kerry Ott, "the big deaf maker of plays"; the "pan-faced elevator man";  the "black-eyed girl"; the "dumb-eyed man", the "gnome janitor", and so on. Following a brief imagining of how Dan's murder might have occurred, we follow Tuxedo Johnny as he obsessively catalogs his impressions and all details surrounding the crime, trying to make things fit, trying above all to figure out how any killer could have escaped amid an atmosphere of ever-increasing urgency and suspense. 

"'The spiderweb... octagonal, geometric, flawless, with four rays of laddered silk. A work of time. A work of highest art.'"

Throughout the story, references to spiders-- as above, with their insidious web-weaving and "life of hidden, sticky murder"-- and the crafting of plays hints at the presence of some unseen design at work. The solution makes use of a gambit tough to pull off, because it requires a fine delicacy of narrative construction to do it fairly and effectively, and the culprit is convincingly shown to be the only logical choice. There is a high re-read value here, not only for the depth of Rogers' prose but also for how deftly he slips important clues past the reader, with certain descriptions and statements taking on a new reading once the whole truth is known (something that is, of course, integral to all first-rate fair-play puzzlers). 

"He lay with eyes open. The molecular corpuscles of the darkness swam before his eyes like the eyes of deep sea fishes. All the darkness was filled with nothing. With dark grey eyes of nothingness, which floated, and drifted, and paused to stare, and swam on by... Against the dingy shadow of the pane, he saw the spider, moving and weaving. No living thing visible in all the darkness except her, Arachne, shuttling her laddered silk all through the night."

This story was first published in New Detective Magazine in September 1946 and has been reprinted in the Ramble House collection Night of Horror & Other Stories, as well as the Murder Impossible anthology referenced above. It's rather astounding to me that Rogers has become so obscure, given the impressive quality of his most accomplished works. I've yet to acquire the aforementioned collection, but I can also recommend the tales in Killing Time and Other Stories. Two of these stories feature impossible crimes: the satisfying "The Hiding Horror", concerning the murder of an actress in a locked-up house with no feasible means of egress for the murderer, and the unfortunately preposterous and predictable "The Crimson Vampire", involving a massive bat terrorizing a family. The best story there, in my opinion, is the masterfully-paced tale of psychological suspense "My Friend Death," in which a mild-mannered bank teller may have inadvertently picked up a parcel containing a severed head, and cannot find a way to get rid of it... The denouement features an element which to me is now characteristic of Rogers, but it is very well-executed. Highly recommended!

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