The Red Right Hand by Joel Townsley Rogers

Book Details

Originally Published in 1945

The Blurb

A deranged killer sends a doctor on a quest for the truth—deep into the recesses of his own mind.

After the death of Inis St. Erme, Dr. Henry Riddle retraces the man’s final moments, searching for the moment of his fatal mis-step. Was it when he and his bride-to-be first set out to elope in Vermont? Or did his deadly error occur later—perhaps when they picked up the terrifying sharp-toothed hitch-hiker, or when the three stopped at “Dead Bridegroom’s Pond” for a picnic?

As he searches for answers, Riddle discovers a series of bizarre coincidences that leave him questioning his sanity and his innocence. After all, he too walked those wild, deserted roads the night of the murder, stranded and struggling to get home to New York City. The more he reflects, his own memories become increasingly uncertain, arresting him with nightmarish intensity and veering into the irrational territory of pure terror—that is until an utterly satisfying solution emerges from the depths, logical enough to send the reader back through the narrative to see the clues they missed.

The Verdict

A suspenseful, atmospheric and unsettling read. The mystery plays fair and has a really clever resolution. Highly recommended.


My Thoughts

In his excellent introduction to the American Mystery Classics reprint, Joe. R. Lansdale recommends that readers attempt to consume this in a single sitting. The reason is that this is written as one long manuscript without any chapter breaks, almost as a stream of consciousness, and by doing so you allow the narrative to slowly build upon your senses of apprehension and dread.

I opted to follow Lansdale’s advice and I would strongly recommend that you do as well. This book is one of the trippiest and most disconcerting I have read in a while and I agree that it rewards a reader’s undivided attention.

The book is told from the perspective of Dr. Henry Riddle, a young surgeon who is attempting to make sense of a bizarre series of events. These concern Elinor and Inis – a couple who were travelling through Vermont from out-of-state in a plan to elope together and the hitchhiker with a torn ear, sharp teeth and a strange corkscrew walking style that joined them on their journey.

The particular part of Vermont they are in happens to be very remote and Riddle himself is a visitor, having been called into the area to provide care to a gravely ill man. The party decides to stop at the nearby Dead Bridesgroom’s Pond for a picnic but the meal has a violent end as the hitchhiker apparently kills Inis and attempts to murder his fiancée before speeding away in a car containing the corpse.

Dr. Riddle tries to understand is why he did not pass that car when it was seen heading along the road he was stranded on and given there was no turning before it should have passed him. It is a perplexing situation that becomes even stranger when he learns that the man he witnessed walk past him in the forest had been killed a short time earlier when he was struck by the fleeing car.

Rogers writes in a seemingly unfocused style, jumping forwards and backwards in the order of events. This represents his stream of consciousness and also his sense of confusion as he works around different points in the series of events, trying to make some sense of those experiences. The experience is as disorienting for the reader as it is for Riddle and the more we learn, the more confusing those events appear.

This unorthodox storytelling style is one of the most memorable aspects of the book because it is no mere gimmick. The apparent disorder of Riddle’s thoughts helps establish the mood and tone of the piece while also reflecting a key theme of the novel – that our observations may be unreliable as things are not always as they appear.

That idea can be applied to the novel itself as much as its plot. On the surface this appears to be a psychological suspense story with countryside noir elements. Those aspects of the novel are certainly there but beneath them Rogers has crafted an exceptional example of a fair play mystery with clever, logical clues and an audacious solution that you have a reasonable chance of reaching for yourself. It is a remarkable achievement that makes me wish Rogers had been more prolific in the genre.

The plot, themes and tone would be reason enough to read this but they are not the novel’s only strengths. I was struck by Rogers’ depiction of the rural setting and the feeling of being really isolated. This is not only important to the plot, it feeds into the book’s strange sense of atmosphere as we are reminded that you could travel for miles without seeing anyone and that if a killer does still lurk nearby, the characters have little hope of getting help.

This atmosphere seems to thicken the more you read and a slow, inexorable sense of dread grows as the tale nears its conclusion. That ending is as thrilling as it is clever, the tension building right up to the end.

There is plenty more I could say about this book but unfortunately doing so would spoil the book’s surprises. Instead let me sum up by saying that I found this book to be a truly gripping and unpredictable read. I appreciated the clever blend of psychological suspense and fair play mystery with several apparent impossibilities and that wonderful sense of atmosphere Rogers creates.

Strongly recommended.

A copy of the new American Mystery Classics edition was provided by the publisher for review.
The American Mystery Classics edition will be released on July 7th (print) and 9th (digital).

15 thoughts on “The Red Right Hand by Joel Townsley Rogers

  1. I’m in the minority on this one, but I think The Red Right Hand is massively overrated. Fredric Brown’s Night of the Jabberwock is a similar kind of mystery novel, in which reality and nightmares blend together during an eventful night, but did it much better than The Red Right Hand. I highly recommend you get a copy. If you liked The Red Right Hand, you’ll love Night of the Jabberwock.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You’re in a minority of two, at least!
      I wasn’t quite as disappointed as I was with Farjeon’s “Mystery in White”, but I wasn’t very impressed with this one. Though I might have to re-read it, I wasn’t in the best frame of mind when I did read it the first time.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. We’ll make that a minority of three, then. In fairness, however, I read it when I was fairly new to the genre and I was probably expecting a very different book. Tempted to get this reprint because I like what the AMC imprint is doing and I want to support that,but boy are my memories of this not good…

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Interesting. Clearly I am in the minority here – I respect all three of your opinions and taste more generally. Did you read it expecting an impossible crime (I think that can be oversold which is why I didn’t really focus on it in my review)?

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      3. It was something I heard of on account of the impossibility, yes, and you’re correct in that being an almost incidental element of it that can be overlooked. Plus, like I said above, I had an expectation of it being a very Christie-esque GAD story…and that’s something it most certainly ain’t.

        Your positive take is what’s made me think I should give it another go — knowing what to expect, and with better coverage in the genre since the last time i read it, maybe I’ll find the things in it that you highlight above. So thanks for the nudge!

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      4. Well, for what it’s worth I agree on the Farjeon. The problem with writing about this one is that it is hard to talk about the meat of the book without spoiling it for others but I would be curious to read your thoughts.

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      5. Did you read it expecting an impossible crime
        Believe it, or not, but no. I expected another Night of the Jabberwock. Technically, it was, but not anywhere near as good as that classic.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting to see the mixed views on this book. Seems like a marmite book. Nevertheless I am tempted by this one. Do you think does a masculine version of what Ethel Lina White does in hers?

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    1. Yes, it does seem that way. I haven’t read any ELW yet but the closest experiences I have had is the Elisabeth Sanxay Holding novella Speak of The Devil but this is less supernaturally styled.

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  3. It’s the writing style and the eerie atmosphere that make THE RED RIGHT HAND a true success for me. I also loved the surrealism. For a long time one never really knows if what is happening is real or hallucinatory. It’s an excellent example of well executed phantasmagoria in crime fiction. Roger’s pulp stories are equally eccentric and some are brilliant. Ramble House has a couple of collections of his stories available: Night of Horror and Killing Time. Fender Tucker worked with Rogers’ and a couple of pulp magazine collectors several years ago and got access to stories that are very hard to find. Highly recommended for Rogers’ fans.

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