Monday, August 11, 2014

Review of The Red Right Hand by Joel Townsley Rogers (1945, re-issued by 280Steps 2014)

In an impulsive moment, Inis St Erme, a rich investor, and Elinor Darrie, a receptionist in an insurance company, decide to get married.  Unable to tie the knot in New York without waiting a few days for a license they borrow a car to drive to Vermont.  On the way they pick up a hitchhiker and stop for a picnic on a lonely road.  St Erme and the hitchhiker get into a fight, the latter apparently mortally wounding the investor before bundling him into the car and speeding off.  On its journey the car knocks down and kills another man and runs over a dog.  Yet the vehicle never reaches Dr Riddle whose car has broken down on the first junction on the road.  And when they do find St Erme’s body he is missing his right hand.  To the police and Riddle the case makes little sense and nor do any of the clues, then those connected to the investigation also start to fall victim to the killer.

The Red Right Hand is a convoluted whodunnit penned by Joel Townsley Rogers, best known as a prolific short story writer.  Rogers’ aim seems to have been to a tell a tale that is as full as possible with feints, sleights, red herrings, twists and turns, and contradictory evidence, as Dr Henry Riddle recounts the story of an eloping young couple who pick up a hitchhiker on a lonely road, the resulting murder, and the investigation that leads to other deaths.  The set-up is kind of an open-air locked room mystery, with the killer seemingly managing to escape along a blocked road.  The story is narrated almost as a stream of consciousness by Riddle, but it’s not always clear how reliable his narration is, and his account sometimes rambles on through some amazingly long sentences, with dozens of sub-clauses.  Whilst the plot is complex and clever -- the denouement is a wonderfully piece of storytelling -- it relies on a whole series of coincidences, a couple of which are more than a little fantastical (as the story is told they seem odd but work to place doubt into the reader’s mind; when looking back after the resolution they make no sense).  The result is a story where the reader is aware that the tale will only work if they become duplicit in the charade, suspending any kind of realism and continue knowing that they cannot believe anything until the final few pages.  The Red Right Hand is an undoubtedly clever book, but the coincidences and knowing cleverness just didn’t quite work for me despite all the plaudits that have been heaped on it over the years.  Nonetheless, worth a read for the sheer gusto of the plot.

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