The 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
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.
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.