The Red Right Hand – Joel Townsley Rogers (1945)

I can’t think of a book that would be more difficult to give my opinion on than this one.  Well, maybe one aspect is clear cut: The Red Right Hand is a smashing success and I can’t imagine a reader not gobbling up the final dozen or so pages.  Hands down, you should absolutely read this book.

But it gets muddy in discussing exactly why it’s a success, and it’s even trickier to discuss the shortcomings.  I’ve had enough books spoiled for me by ham handed reviews or the accompanying comments, and I’d hate to do that to you.  So, if you haven’t read this, here’s my attempt at a sensitive blurb.

The Red Right Hand plays its… err… hand from the beginning by laying out the circumstances of a confounding and chilling crime.  You know from the first few pages that the body count will be high, there are aspects of the puzzle that defy explanation, and the story is going to be flat out bizarre.  The tale unfolds as a jumbled stream of consciousness that leaps through time and space, yet by the end, all of those fragments of events will come together to form a seamless picture.  A beautiful picture at that.

You’ll be challenged by this one, although I don’t want to comment on why.  Stick with it.  If you do, you’ll be rewarded by a conclusion that provides all of the misdirection you could hope for in the true style of the Golden Age.

And now, if you haven’t read this one yet, it’s time to take your leave.  I’m going to attempt to keep this spoiler free still, but I just don’t think it’s possible to discuss this one without in some sense spoiling an aspect of the journey.  Take care.

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Ok… so you’ve read this, right?  It’s just us?

You know, even looking at what I wrote above, I think I failed.  The mere suggestion that you need to keep going creates the follow up question of why?  And what other conclusion can a mystery reader come to than that the obvious solution can’t be assumed?  And there is an obvious solution to this one, right?  A really obvious one.

There’s a time and a place for a red herring in a mystery novel, and yet I question whether an author really does themselves a service by laying one out there.  When I’m reading a book and I think that I’ve glommed onto the solution, well, it kind of spoils it a bit.  100 page left of the detective poking their nose down dead ends when I know how things are going to end?  Sure, the author may be fooling me, but those 80 pages between me figuring out the false solution and hitting the real one kind of have a drag to them.  I’m sitting there, glancing at my wrist watch, waiting for the inevitable to happen.  All the time, clever clues to the true solution are being laid, but I’m long past concluding I figured it out.  That’s not to say that the revelation of being proved wrong isn’t ecstasy, but sometimes the journey to it just drags.

Don’t get me wrong – when I read a mystery, I absolutely want to be fooled.  But I don’t want to think that I flat out know the answer.  I want to have it partially in my grasp, but still have that yearning to know the rest.  Red herrings, when skillfully wielded, will accomplish that; in the best of cases leaving you struck with the surprise that the solution you arrived is riddled with holes that the detective lays bare.

I bring this all up because I can’t imagine anyone over the age of twelve not immediately coming to a particular conclusion about where The Red Right Hand is headed.  Oh, it’s painful in this case.  Like, this isn’t that long of a book at all, and yet ten pages in, I was really not willing to sit through 170 more pages to get to that ending.  And yet Joel Townsley Rogers kicks back and continues with liberal lashings red herring.  Hey, I liked the story, I liked the writing – this was absolutely enjoyable to read – and yet in the face of on that inevitable ending, it somehow seemed daunting.

My brain was looking for any way out.  Any hint that I might not get the ending I knew was coming. I spotted it maybe three quarters of the way through – with that one scene that I imagine most readers might notice – and from there on out I was awakened.  There was hope.  Of course, now the problem was somewhat on the other foot.  I had shifted from one inevitable solution to another, although this one was much more palatable.

And then, bam, talk about a euphoric denouement.  Yeah, there are plenty better, but this is that type you gobble up with a ladle, all the while thinking “I noticed that, but I should have really seen it”.  It’s a full on blend of “I knew that” mixed with “oh, I didn’t think of that”.

Yeah, Rogers (or is it Townsley Rogers? – it kind of feels like a double last name to me, but I imagine it’s really a full name) could have done himself better by not being so ham fisted with the red herring.  A good red herring tugs you along, feeling like you have the answer almost in your grasp, but then when all is explained, you realize your solution had gaps you could drive a truck through.  The problem The Red Right Hand is that it presents a potential solution that negates the gap; a faulty narrator allows any loose end to be waved away effortlessly.  

I’ve seen this listed as an impossible crime, but I hardly feel it qualifies.  For one, most any reader is going to think the red herring explains away the whole phantom car bit.  Negate the red herring and it still doesn’t feel like an impossibility in any strong sense.

But holy hell, this is strong book, and the ending is outstanding.  I finished this two weeks ago, and yet every moment of the book – every turn of that road and fallen leaf in that forest – is still as visceral as anything I’ve read lately, and honestly, I’m on a tear of incredible reads.  Oh, and the bit about the “red right hand” and its significance?  Absolutely beautiful.  I was kicking myself for not seeing that bit coming.

Anyway, I love this book, and I’m happy that I managed to get my hands on a 1946 Pocket Books edition.  The cover is easily the best and put me in a good mindset while I was reading. I know that Rogers published a few more mysteries, and if you’ve read any that are worthwhile, let me know.

11 thoughts on “The Red Right Hand – Joel Townsley Rogers (1945)”

  1. That is a gorgeous cover. I think you sum this up really well and you are right – this is almost impossible to discuss without dropping hints, deliberately or not. Glad you enjoyed!

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    1. You know, I spent a while trying to track down a cheap copy of that edition, and then when I got it, I sat on it for something like 6 months due to some mixed reviews. I think it was your review and maybe James Scott Byrnside that awoke me from my slumber.

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  2. As is on record elsewhere, I read this several years ago expecting a very different type of book and really, really did not like it as a result. Like a fool I gave that copy away, so the recent reprint of this coupled with these glowing reviews from trusted sources will result in a reappraisal before too long. Expect more news when I have it…

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    1. “…so the recent reprint of this coupled with these glowing reviews from trusted sources will result in a reappraisal before too long.

      Now you’re just going out of your way to disagree with me! We were on the same page on this one.

      I’ve given this recommendation to others who recently read and praised The Red Right Hand and I’ll give it to you, GC: read Fredric Brown’s Night of the Jabberwock. Brown played a very similar game as Rogers, but did it much, much better.

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      1. Your recommendation of Night of the Jabberwock has already been noted, worry not. Having only read one Brown — Death Has Many Doors — and not loved it, I’m keen to try more and hopefully get better out of him. All in good time…

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  3. I was in the same boat as you with the red herring: When you are reading a writer for the first time, and aren’t used to their tricks, or even their narrative conventions, you can imagine that a red herring actually isn’t one, and maybe you have smelled an obvious solution, that the writer slipped up somehow. Here it felt obvious, then too obvious, then just a screaming billboard with a 1000W light that had to be a fake out, and then Townsley just uses it to create a mood of paranoia and distrust.
    I remember really gloaming onto this one because it came on a tale end of GAD novel binge where I was beginning to feel a sugar crash coming on and even a little boredom from the conventions of the genre. This was a good detox.

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    1. Yeah, this was a nice break from the conventions. I’ve built up a little stack of books that I think might fall into that vein, such as The Beast Must Die by Nicholas Blake and Night of the Jabberwock by Frederic Brown, and expect to read a few in the coming months.

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