An Old Friend

Recently I was happy to find that The Red Right Hand by Joel Townsley Rogers is available on Kindle.

I first came across it years ago, when I was vacationing with my parents in Maine. It was in a cardboard box full of old paperbacks that a lady was selling at a yard sale, two books for fifty cents. The pages were yellow and the cover was torn, but I liked the looks of the cover art so I bought it, along with a paperback about a woman who was turned into a log through black magic.

I kid you not.

The woman-into-log book  had a terrific cover — men with flashlights in a swamp, recoiling from the hideous sight of the wrinkled, leering log — but the narrative wasn’t very good. I read it through then  left it behind at the cabin where we were staying. The other book I bought at the yard sale that day I kept for years, reading it and re-reading it until it fell apart.

It’s that good. I can think of only a handful of books that made that kind of impression on me.

The Red Right Hand is a masterpiece, IMO. Joel Townsley Rogers wrote many short stories for pulp magazines, none of them particularly memorable, as far as I can tell. He also wrote four novels. The Red Right Hand is by far the best of the lot.

What distinguishes it from other mystery novels of  the World War II era is its stream-of-consciousness, almost hallucinogenic quality. Events unroll not smoothly — A happened, then B, then C and so on until the murder is solved —  but by glimpses. Objects appear in the dark, to be illuminated for a split-second before disappearing.  There’s a Panama hat, and a stone wall covered with ancient, warty vines of poison ivy. There’s a bread knife and a nineteen-year-old woman from a little Pennsylvania town who agrees to marry a handsome, self-assured Oklahoma oilman. There’s a tape-recording machine in the kitchen of a professor’s house and a wristwatch with a second hand. There’s a surgeon, or someone claiming to be a surgeon, driving through Vermont on his way to New York City after his patient died on the operating table. There’s a shopping list and a sink filled with dirty dishes and strawberries which have rotted and turned to black mush. There’s all this and more, some important clues, some meaningless. Most of all there’s a missing right hand.

I’ve always loved unreliable narrators and Harry N. Riddle, M.D. is highly unreliable. While driving a borrowed car which breaks down on a narrow dirt road in rural Vermont, he either stumbles onto a seemingly impossible scenario, or he’s lying. All signs point to lying. There’s something about young Dr. Riddle that’s highly suspicious. Either he’s having an unusually unlucky time of it, his patient dead, his surgery implements gone missing from the trunk of his borrowed car, or he’s a killer.

The great joy of The Red Right hand is its language. It flows like music, with a cadence that’s haunting and lovely.  The point isn’t to solve the mystery, although it is solved, by the end, but to sit back and enjoy the work of a master at the top of his game.

You won’t be disappointed.

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