Tuesday, July 28, 2020

The Red Right Hand, by Joel Townsley Rogers.

"... it was a pretty good play, as criminal plays go."

Two of my favorite mystery/crime novels within the last year or so have come from Penzler Publishers American Mystery Classics series.  First on the list is Dorothy Hughes' excellent Dread Journey, and now there's this one, The Red Right Hand, by Joel Townsley Rogers.

Penzler Publishers, 2020
230 pp

Originally published in 1945, The Red Right Hand  begins with our narrator puzzling over a number of "baffling aspects" of the story that we are about to read, starting with how it was that he completely missed a car that had to have been
"so close that its door latches must have almost scraped me, and the pebbles shot out by its streaking tires have flicked against my ankles, and the killer's grinning face behind the wheel been within an arm's length of my own as he shot by?"
 Was there, asks Dr. Henry N. Riddle,
"something impossible about that rushing car, about its red-eyed sawed-off little driver and its dead passenger that caused me to miss it complete?" 
But the "most important" thing "in all the dark mystery of tonight,"  is the question that opens this book as he ponders
"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."
Sitting at the desk of a certain Professor MacComerou, he goes back in his mind to  "set the facts down," so that he can "examine the problem," thereby launching this most strange but genuinely satisfying mystery story that kept me baffled right up until the end.  It all begins in New York when  Inis St. Erme borrows a friend's Cadillac so that he and Elinor Darrie can run up to Connecticut to be married.  Not wanting to wait the mandatory three days in New York, they make their way to Danbury, where they discover that they'd have to wait five days, so there's a change in plan: they'll be moving on to Vermont to tie the knot. First though, they make a stop at a local grocery and decide to have a picnic at a quaint little place called Dead Bridegroom's Pond  recommended by the grocer.   Along the way they pick up a hitchhiker who waits in the car while Inis and Elinor go on down to the lake. But their romantic picnic is interrupted when their passenger attacks St. Erme and goes after Elinor before driving away with the car, leaving her there frightened but unhurt.  Obviously, the same can't be said for St. Erme, as we know from Riddle at the very beginning that he's been killed.    Dr. Riddle, as stated on the back-cover blurb, "discovers a series of bizarre coincidences that leave him questioning both his sanity and his own innocence," but he is most seriously disturbed by how he could have missed the Cadillac as he was walking on the very road from which the car emerged at the very same time that he was there. But things are going to become even more weird before we catch up with the good doctor in real time, at which point the entire bizarre plot unfolds and all is revealed.

To say any more about the plot of The Red Right Hand would be absolutely criminal.

my growing Penzler Publishers American Mystery Classics shelf, appropriately shaded in a sort of noirish shadow. 

I love the originality displayed here in terms of plot and especially style.  This is not just another average mystery from the 40s, to be sure; it moves away from the norm from the get-go.  As author Joe Lansdale says in his introduction to this edition,
"The story moves back and forth in time, akin to the natural thought process, as if the whole thing were spilling out of the narrator's brain from moment to moment, and we were seeing all the in-betweens of thought."
 He also notes the "near stream-of-consciousness" style used by Rogers, and I don't think it would have had the same impact done any other way.  I've seen this book described a few times by readers as "surreal," and that's not an exaggeration -- at one point a dancer weighs in on how to solve the many riddles nested within this case:
"You need to wear a leopard skin, a chiffon nightgown, and a feather duster on your tail, and dance the beautiful dance of the corkscrew and the bottle."
Red herrings abound, so much so that I was completely baffled; there is quite a bit of repetition as well as a number of bizarre coincidences that run throughout this novel, two elements I normally detest and yet, somehow it all seems necessary here and more importantly, it works. As one of the policemen says toward the end of this book, "... it was a pretty good play, as criminal plays go."  I couldn't have said it better myself. 

Joe Lansdale's own reading experience with this novel sort of mirrors my own when he says that at times he
"... felt as if I were seeing the world through a dark and grease-smeared window pane that would frequently turn clear and light up in spewing colors like a firework display on the Fourth of July. At the same time there was that sensation of something dark and damp creeping up behind me, a cold chill on the back on my neck."
I felt that "cold chill" more than once during my time with this book.  It is genuinely one of the most bizarre mysteries I've ever read, with a solution that I never saw coming, one that is completely and utterly satisfying, an ahhhh read to be sure.    I can honestly think of nothing negative at all to say here.

very much recommended; it should delight readers of old mysteries and readers who are looking for something out of the box in their crime fiction.