Books, Reviews

THE RED RIGHT HAND, by Joel Townsley Rogers

04.05.11 | 2 Comments

Everyone saw the death car as it roared down the sleepy country byway, the demented tramp laughing at the wheel, Inis St. Erme sprawled beside him, already dead or dying. A family saw it as it swerved to strike their beloved St. Bernard. An artist saw it as it sped through his semi-circular drive, scattering his easels and grinding the paintings beneath its wheels.

John Flail, however, did not see it, as it ran him down from behind.

And, more remarkably, Henry Riddle did not see it either, despite the fact that the car he himself drove sat stalled at the entrance to Swamp Road, at the other end of which the car was found. A half-dozen witnesses saw the car, with St. Erme slumped to the side, his arm hanging down against the door, but Riddle did not.

The horror would not be real until they found St. Erme’s body, and it was Riddle himself that found it, as a hastily assembled group searched the swamp near where the car was discovered. Half-sunk in the muck it was, with only an arm visible. An arm without a hand.

The reader can see as well as Riddle that all the signs point to one man as the killer. But Riddle won’t believe it, so he sits writing in a dead man’s house and tries to find another explanation, an explanation that sounds at first like a madman’s raving, but then, incredibly, it begins to make sense. And the reader begins to doubt his own sanity.

This brief description doesn’t do justice to the oddness of Joel Townsley Rogers’ 1945 novel The Red Right Hand. The oppressive atmosphere of insanity pervades every scene, every word even (though I never actually though myself insane; no more than usual, anyway). To my mind the novel was clearly influenced by Cornell Woolrich, and not just in the tone – outrageous coincidences abound, for example, and the ultimate explanation is bizarrely far-fetched. The last twenty pages essentially rewrite every single event that precedes them. And yes, there’s a damn good reason that right hand is missing.

In fact, the solution is so convoluted that I think Rogers made a mistake. The killer does one thing that he would never have done had he known… but by that time, he did know. Also, it was half an hour after I finished the book that I realized who one of the bodies belonged to.

This book doesn’t have Woolrich’s propulsive narrative drive – the first forty pages are slow going – but once it got moving I couldn’t put it down. It’s certainly not a great book, but it’s a really good one, and it’s very much out of the ordinary, so if you like your mysteries mixed with a little horror (two great things that go great together), this book will fill the bill.


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