Joel Townsley Rogers: The Red Right Hand

the-red-right-handThe Red Right Hand
Joel Townsley Rogers (with a new introduction by Martin Edwards)
First published in the US, 1945 by Simon and Schuster
This edition, 2014, 280 Steps
eISBN: 9788293326199
Source: Publisher’s review copy

We are dropped right into the thick of things. Our narrator is Dr Henry Riddle, a surgeon returning home to New York after an unsuccessful operation at the home of a Vermont millionaire. He is sitting in the study of a remote house in the Connecticut hills, alone with a sleeping girl and the knowledge that a crazed killer is out there, somewhere…

The girl is a young New Yorker named Elinor Darrie. Earlier in the day she was travelling to Vermont with her boyfriend Inis St. Erme in order to get a quickie marriage. Along the way they picked up a hitch-hiker, a little man with red eyes, a torn ear, a distinctive blue saw-tooth hat, corkscrew legs, and a cultured voice.

The hitch-hiker, Corkscrew, was last seen driving St. Erme’s car along the country roads, laughing wildly, with St. Erme beside him. St. Erme’s body has been found, minus his right hand. A few hours later, Corkscrew is still at large.

Two tiny coincidences bind Riddle and Elinor together. Back in New York, they are almost neighbours, and she works for a remote cousin of his. Two tiny coincidences are not quite enough to make him a suspect, but there are other factors. For one thing, Corkscrew must have driven the car right past Dr Riddle, but for some reason he missed it.

No less explicable – to me, at least – is the puzzle, from the beginning of how that smoke-gray murder car, with its blood-red upholstery and high-pitched wailing horn, could have passed me by while I was at the entrance to the Swamp Road just before twilight with St. Erne in it dying or dead already, and that grinning little hobo murderer driving it like a fiend. […] so close that its door latches must have almost scraped me, and the pebbles shot out by its streaking tyres 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.

As Riddle’s story winds on, more and more strands of seeming coincidence are bound into the nightmarish plot. And the pace does not let up for a second – read in one sitting if at all possible.

I really enjoyed Rogers’ writing. I was strongly reminded of Stephen King – the backwoodsy New England settings, eccentric Yankee locals, and most of all the demonic appearance of Corkscrew and the almost hypnotic repetition of motifs. And I like a writer with a good sense of colour – this is splashed with bright primary blues, greens, and of course reds.

So: A great opening scene, vivid descriptions, unreliable narration and a breathless plot. Go and get this one.


See also:

Tipping My Fedora: The book has a powerful, oneiric, even hallucinatory feel to it and Rogers shows a real talent in bringing the countryside to life in a bewitching and sinister fashion that is truly seductive. The narrative has a peculiar logic all its own, painting a universe in which bizarre coincidences abound and which seem to be calmly accepted,

Pulp Seranade: All sense of balance and logic is sent on a tailspin that moves further and further off course, never righting itself. Even in its wonderfully and preposterously slapstick finale, The Red Right Hand abides by no rules and leaves you flabbergasted as to how such a fiendish novel could ever be assembled by a sane mind.

About pastoffences

Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
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13 Responses to Joel Townsley Rogers: The Red Right Hand

  1. realthog says:

    This sounjds quite splendid. I must try to lay hands on a copy!


  2. TracyK says:

    Sounds interesting and clever. I want to get a copy of this one, just have to read some more from my own shelves first.


  3. So glad you liked this one Rich – in every sense one of my favourites. And very interesting that you make the comparison to King as he is clearly a fan – his novel GERALD’S GAME was very much an hommage to King’s NEVER LEAVE MY BED


  4. OOPS – i meant Rogers’s NEVER LEAVE MY BED was the inspiration for King’s GERALD’S GAME


  5. Peggy Ann says:

    Okay Rich, I did go get a copy just now at Paperbackswap! A 1964 paperback! Can’t wait to read it.


  6. Santosh Iyer says:

    I repeat below my review at Amazon:
    This is a bizarre, eerie and brilliant novel. Unique. A must reading for mystery fans.
    Though the first 30 or 40 pages are a bit slow, it becomes a page turner after that and definitely unputdownable.
    The story is told in first person, the narrator being Dr. Henry Riddle, a brain surgeon.
    Inis St. Erme and his fiancée Elinor Darrie are heading for Vermont in a car to get married. They pick up a tramp on the way. The tramp apparently kills or wounds St. Erme and tries to kill Elinor but she hides and escapes. The tramp then speeds off in the car on a country road carrying the dead or dying body of St. Erme. It runs over and kills first a dog and then a man.
    The car is later found abandoned at the end of a side road. After a search, the dead body is found not very far away in a swamp, with the right hand cut off and missing! There is no sign of the murderer.
    After the surprise and stunning revelation towards the end of the book, the reader is likely to go back and reread portions to see how it worked out. On rereading, the reader will note that all the clues are there and it is definitely a fair play mystery.
    It is a complex mystery. A factor adding to the complexity is that it is not told linearly in time but jumps back and forth in time. Hence it should be read carefully. It may be necessary to reread it to comprehend it fully and realize its brilliance
    It may be regarded as a locked room/impossible crime mystery.There are basically two impossibilities here.
    Several witnesses see the speeding car on the main country road with the maniac looking tramp at the wheel and the dead or dying body of St. Erme besides him. The car then comes to a junction with a side road and apparently turns to this side road, since it is later found abandoned at the end of the side road. However, the narrator Henry Riddle is at the junction at that time, stranded with his stalled car. He does not see the car carrying the tramp and St. Erme! This is the main impossibility.
    Another impossibility is that while Riddle is stranded at the junction, he sees a man walking away from him on the side road. But later it is found that he is the same person who is run over and killed on the main road by the speeding car!
    The book is highly recommended and I have no hesitation in rating it 5 stars.


  7. I thought this was an excellent story, and so I very much enjoyed your review. A most unusual book….


  8. Pingback: The Red Right Hand – Joel Townsley Rogers | Battered, Tattered, Yellowed, & Creased

  9. Pingback: Smelly old books of the year, 2015 | Past Offences Classic Crime Fiction

  10. Pingback: The Red Right Hand by Joel Townsley Rogers | Peggy's Porch

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