Reading The Red Right Hand is a bit of a hallucinogenic adventure, or at least as close as I’ve come to that sort of feeling, since the idea of a drug induced experience has never been of interest to me.
But a book induced one. I’m all for that. And The Red Right Hand is just the pill to take.
Before discussing the novel, I should point out that Joel Townsley Rogers wrote a lot—nearly all of it short stories for the pulp magazines. If these stories are available, collected, I’m unaware of it. But he is responsible for at least four novels, and this one is the one that has managed to avoid the erosion of time.
There is a short interview/article on Rogers in the edition I read, but it only manages to heat up the desire to know more about the author. This much is certain: he seems less impressed with his novel than the rest of us are, and feels that it is only a minor representative of his long career. It was all in a day’s work. Still, in a garden of delights there is often one flower that is more exceptional than the others, and this book seems to be Rogers’s magnificent orchid.
At times, while reading Rogers’s peculiar book, I felt as if I were seeing the world through a dark and grease-smeared window pane that would frequently turn clear and light up in spewing colors like a firework display on the Fourth of July. At the same time there was the sensation of something damp and dark creeping up behind me, a cold chill on the back of my neck.
Clues and odd impressions pile up like plague victims, and from time to time the answer to the riddle seems close at hand, as if you could reach out and grasp it. Then the answer that seemed so clear wriggles from your grasp like an electric eel and slithers into darkness.
The largest part of the novel’s appeal for me was the style in which it was written, a near stream-of- consciousness akin to the flip-side of pulp, more like the literary novels of William Faulkner or some of the more experimental novels of one of my personal favorites, Fredric Brown. At moments the novel seemed to preview the coming of writers like Jack Kerouac, who would someday write On the Road in a rolling rhythm reminiscent of a car racing down a dark, empty highway with the headlights turned off.
It’s a novel that certainly fits, red herring and clue wise, within the Golden Age of mystery, but it is far more stylistically adventurous than most of the clue-on-clue novels of that era. And it is at the same time something else: an outlier straddling the fence, one leg on the side of the Golden Age mystery, the other on the side of the psychological and somewhat hardboiled school of storytelling. It has a bit of the Alfred Hitchcock mode of storytelling as well, one damn thing after another. It owes a debt to horror fiction, and perhaps a greater debt to creep-up-on you writers like John Dickson Carr. But, like any good recipe that borrows from existing ones, it eventually evolves into its own thing and in the end stands apart as something inimitable.
The story moves back and forth in time, akin to the natural thought process, as if the whole thing were spilling out of the narrator’s brain from moment to moment, and we were seeing all the in-betweens of thought. Little details about how, when given a cigar, the author makes note of the rarity of him smoking one, states how it’s a special occasion. There are a number of these seemingly unimportant asides that gradually help shape a believable, if not necessarily reliable narrator. It gives the story a feeling of pleasant discomfort, like a bolt-rattling carnival ride with the sound of muted laughter below, and above the sick aura of cheap lights, and above that, the moon, full and cloud coated.
There really isn’t any way to capture The Red Right Hand in a net so as to have it pinned and labeled. It’s not a butterfly. It’s a genre slider, a brain teaser, a liar and a truth-teller all at the same time. There are moments when you sense misdirection, but at the same time you are willing to take that detour because there is something of the primitive back-brain about all of it, guiding us as readers to not let go of the narrator’s hand for fear of being lost in the dark.
I’ll go no farther discussing the workings of this novel for fear of wounding the bird, so to speak. For explaining too much about how the bird flies would take away from its regal mystery and just might break its dark, beautiful wings.
The novel’s rolling rhythm of reversals and revelations make this a straight-through read. I suggest you prepare for that. Find a special time to be immersed in the novel. That is the best way to enjoy it, since there are no chapter breaks. It is best if the spell remains unbroken.
If at all possible, choose a night when you are rested and satisfied. It wouldn’t hurt if there is a rain storm. Not enough to blow the lights out, but enough to make the wind howl and the rain clatter against the roof. Sit by a window if you can, a single lamp illuminating your reading space. And if there happens to be a roll of thunder that shakes the window panes, a stitch of lightning that strobes your reading space, all the better. A blanket over your knees would be nice. A big cup of hot chocolate at your elbow would help the mood, the steam from it rising out of the cup in a fast-fading cloud.
Deep dive, and keep right on reading until the sun comes up and the book is closed. When that’s done, you’ll need a few moments to absorb it all, to let the magic soak into your bones and to realize that you have read a singular representative of when a writer’s talent, ideas, and state of mind have happily collided to produce a masterpiece.