October 31, 2018

The Red Right Hand (1945) - Joel Townsley Rogers

“‘This is definitely a surrealistic murder. It is the murder of a genius. It has symbolism. […] You, Dr. Riddle, are too pragmatic and unimaginative to understand it. What you need is to believe with all your soul in phantasms which cannot possibly exist.’”

Joel Townsley Rogers was a prolific short story writer beginning in the 1920s, writing adventure and weird menace stories. He wrote four novels but this one, his second, is undoubtedly his most successful.

That is because this book is fantastic (in every sense of the term)!

The New York Times blurb for this book when it was released on May 11, 1945 read simply: "A Detective Story." But this really isn't one. Rather, it is a relentlessly dark horror-noir-puzzler with moments of absurd humor, whose resolution comes about from the narrator, a doctor, reasoning his way through the events. Two days later a review by Isaac Anderson aptly concludes: "It is a strange and terrifying story, and the solution to the mystery, while perfectly logical, is not at all what one is led to suspect."

The plot involves the murder of the young bridegroom Inis St. Irme, who is heading to the house of an acquaintance from New York City to Vermont in order to marry his girlfriend. Along the way, they pick up a thoroughly repulsive and oddly-dressed vagrant, referred to as Corkscrew or Doc, who ambushes them after stopping at a nearby lake, chases Inis and then, after wounding or killing him, speeds off in his car on a mad tear through the countryside. He races down a local road, hitting and killing a dog as well as another man. Then he turns down the Swamp Road, abandons the car, and disappears along with Inis.

At the same time as this is going on, our narrator, Dr. Harry Riddle, Jr., is motoring back to New York City from Vermont when he breaks down on the Swamp Road near the entrance, partially blocking the street. Despite being at the car for about an hour, exactly during the time Corkscrew would have roared directly past him, he could reliably swear that he did not hear or see any car pass by. And herein lies the first impossibility: how could the killer’s car have passed Dr. Riddle without his noticing it?

Various local people along with a police lieutenant become aware of what happened and try to locate Corkscrew and St. Irme. A search party eventually fans out in the countryside and finds the latter’s body crammed into the swamp. His face has been nearly defleshed, and his right hand is missing. But Corkscrew remains elusive. A second impossible aspect emerges later when it appears that the man Corkscrew hits and kills with his car had been seen by Dr. Riddle walking further down along the road, after the time he was supposedly hit.

“The problem is not of the phantasm of a man I saw who did not exist, however. The problem is of a murder car I did not see, which did.”

Now, all this makes the novel sound interesting enough. But there is another, less tangible aspect that adds another dimension to the narrative, something we might consider a third impossibility. It wouldn’t exactly be a spoiler to recount it here, as it is something any reader would pick up on, but the narrative has a subtle way of revealing it so that some may grasp it earlier than others. Dr. Riddle himself conveys it, though he is not aware of it. Rather than being a particular event or orchestration, it involves the suggestion of a particular relationship between two characters, and leads the reader to suspect a particular outcome that, given the facts, seems impossible. Another dimension is added to the reading as you begin to look for clues and small details further validating the connection.

Besides the intricate and intensely imaginative plot, the book is rather experimental in form, with the narrative proceeding non-linearly from Dr. Riddle's reflections about the scenario as Corkscrew still remains to be found. As a rational man of medicine, he feels himself caught up in a nightmare but nonetheless cannot stop trying to make sense of it, and so he alternates among discussing what happened, what might have happened and what is currently happening. This has a disorienting effect on the reader, leading to cases where, for example, people who are suggested to have been dead are talking and doing things in subsequent sections (there are no chapter breaks, just occasional paragraph breaks). Adding to the unease are recurrent motifs related to death, decay and madness, and certain expert moments of tension which take on a new reading once the full details are known. 

I consider this book not just a great mystery, but a beautifully grim and dark piece of literature. 

The solution is, so far as I can tell, fairly clued, and most of the plot elements accounted for. The plot is so nuanced and convoluted that one almost expects any explanation to be inadequate - but one would be wrong. There do remain certain coincidences and one or two other situations that, while not critical components of the central mystery, might have benefited from some kind of cursory rationalization. However, I am willing to admit the novel certain pockets of open-endedness, since I burned through this book fairly quickly and could have missed something, and (this being the paramount reason) the story intentionally proceeds according to a sort of nightmare logic that perhaps cannot, by design, wholly be reasoned away. One day I hope to re-read this book and discuss the solution!

A nightmare road. I might have dreamed it, from the time that I had turned off onto it at sunset, and with a splitting head. Phantasms and eyeless houses and a red-eyed rattlesnake and a crazy hat of mine; and old Adam MacComerou staring at me through the garden dusk as I appeared, as if he couldn’t believe that I was real; and then a dead man in the ditch…”

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