BOOK REPORT #2: The Red Right Hand

I am a slow reader. I’ll grant you it’s a bit of a liability when you blog about books. I’ve complained about it to my friends, but they aren’t sympathetic. Not the Puzzle Doctor, who posts every day, usually about these big historical mysteries or heavyweight psychological thrillers or dull, er, dense, um . . . John Rhode novels. Not Kate at Cross Examining Crime, who posts twice a day . . . and half of her books are in Australian!!! And not JJ, who rain or shine reviews Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. (Of course, Saturdays are mostly taken up with podcasts now, and they don’t take any work at all to put together.) 

JJ probably has the right tack: set up a schedule, make each post an assignment, prioritize! Egad, it sounds like . . . homework. And as someone who did his homework for eighteen years and then assigned it for thirty-one, I know all the tricks, all the dissembling, all the stalls, all the excuses. There’s a pandemic raging out there that makes it hard to focus. There’s a madman in the White House (not for much longer, thank the Goddess.) There’s a big new TV in the living room and The Weakest Link is on! “I was going to do it, Mrs. Crabtree, honest, but when I sat down at my computer, my cat lay on my keyboard and wouldn’t let me type . . . “

The thing is, my friends P.D., Kate, and JJ are part of this book club I belong to. Each month we get into some sort of Zoom-like room and discuss a classic mystery. True, John’s face keeps freezing up, and JJ can’t hear anybody, but the flow of conversation still manages to exhilarate . . . at least it did the first time around, although I can’t say we were all thrilled with the book. That title, by the way, was Thou Shell of Death by Nicholas Blake, which I didn’t post about because I didn’t think everyone was going to do double duty with these books. But they were, which is why, if you paid attention, you noticed a surge in posts about Thou Shell of Death in mid-December. 

Well, the surge continues, and so does the cramming. I barely made it to Book Club with book finished last time, and that should have taught me a lesson. But it didn’t: first came the holidays and they were fun. Then there was this insurrection at our nation’s capital: good times. Then came Bridgerton. And now my cat is all snuggled up in my arms in front of the keyboard and . . . well, the point is that I nearly bagged our upcoming meeting later today. Which would have been embarrassing, to say the least, because, well – I picked the book.

 And now Kate and JJ have both posted about The Red Right Hand, Joel Townsley Rogers 1945 noirish masterpiece and at 6am yesterday morning, I had not begun the sucker. And so, with grim determination, I decided to do the impossible: this slow reader read a book fast. From morning to midnight, I accompanied Dr. Henry Riddle on his nightmarish journey through New England in search of a truly gruesome killer. 

Despite the fact that you probably don’t want to find yourself reading this alone in a dimly lit room just before bed – especially the climax – an uninterrupted sitting is exactly the correct way to read The Red Right Hand. First of all, there’s the style of it: it’s written to flow along like a man’s memory, sometimes jumping from one time period to another, filled with gaps that the reader can’t help filling in – which you do to your peril!!! – and sometimes in a stream of consciousness rush of gorgeous language that did remind me a little bit of the time in university when I was assigned William Faulkner’s Absolom, Absolom! which is like learning how to read all over again. Then there’s the plot, which this frequent spoiler is not going to say a word about! Don’t even try to get more out of me.

To be honest, I started the book about a week ago, when I didn’t have a lot of time, and after ten pages I set it aside and wondered if I would return. I urge any person who decides to pick this up to keep on going if such a moment occurs for you. This is a book you have to dive into and then just let yourself go along with. The rhythms begin to make sense – well, most of the time because life is jarring, baby, especially when everything is going terribly, horribly wrong. 

The Red Right Hand is two things: first, it’s an actually good mystery story with a wallop of an ending. I have to say that I knew almost immediately who was responsible . . . and then I completely changed my mind. And by the end . . . well, I’m not saying any more. More than a detective story, however, Rogers has brilliantly crafted a literal nightmare. I’ve never seen prose stand in so perfectly for the stuff of dreams – and man, dreaming works as a metaphor for solving a murder! As the dangers close in on Dr. Riddle, you can feel the suffocation associated with those moments in sleep when you find yourself stuck in events that barely make sense but you have to make sense of them or you won’t running or falling or drowning or . . . Honestly, folks, I can’t remember reading another mystery that managed to eke out a fair play murder story at the same time that it plunged us into such a atmosphere of horror and danger. 

I’m taking risks here by telling you almost nothing about the plot. Trust me, you should go into this knowing as little as possible. Otto Penzler has made it easy for you to pick up a lovely copy through his American Mystery Classics. The introduction, by author Joe R. Lansdale, tells you almost nothing, which is probably a good thing. I’ll tell you this much: The Red Right Hand is clever, it’s violent, it stirs up feelings like a good book should (warning: these are feelings like “unsettled,” “scared,” and “grossed out”), it’s sometimes challenging to read (Lonsdale calls it “a hallucinogenic adventure” and “a drug-induced experience”) but worth it in the end. I’m glad most mysteries aren’t written like this because then I would switch to something more anodyne – like dystopian sci-fi! 

Take the challenge. I’m saving the rest of my comments for Book Club.

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Postscript #1 – A Question

I noticed on one of the book covers I came across the words “SOON TO BE. A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE.” Part of me is dying to know why that didn’t happen, and part of me never wants to watch that movie . . . Does anybody have any information about this?

Postscript #2 – A Promise

I’m going to try and get my Book Club books done earlier and post for you in a regular feature. Why should Kate and PD and JJ have all the fun???

16 thoughts on “BOOK REPORT #2: The Red Right Hand

  1. “The thing is, my friends P.D., Kate, and JJ are part of this book club I belong to. Each month we get into some sort of Zoom-like room and discuss a classic mystery. True, John’s face keeps freezing up..”
    Who is this John ?

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  2. Oh well at least one person will have enjoyed this book for tonight’s book group… I actually enjoyed Blake’s book quite a bit. I agree with you in that I don’t think I could make it through a film adaptation of this book. Probably need therapy afterwards!

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  3. Two of the more common criticisms are the repetition and the, shall we say, annoyingly obvious misdirection. To my mind, these were key factors to its success. A traditional mystery style is like collecting puzzle pieces. TRRH is like walking through a fog. You find a new piece, but the piece you just found is engulfed in fog, so you have to go back because you can’t trust your memory.
    It’s such a unique way to tell a mystery. And the imagery: corkscrew with a dead cat cackling while driving with a corpse–outrageous stuff.
    You’ll have to wait another week for me to tell you why you’re wrong about Lending the Key. No reading for me this weekend.

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    1. Yes, the repetition made me uncomfortable . . . and that’s how dreams work. And yes, the obvious misdirection started to drive me crazy!! Why doesn’t he pick up on everyone’s suspicions? Why doesn’t he notice that every question they ask implicates HIM? Is he merely crazy?? But then I thought of the sense of helplessness we feel in a vivid dream. It feels like walking through glue when you try to MAKE things happen, so we mostly experience our dreams passively. I thought the book caught this very well.

      Okay, I’ll wait another week: either you’ll think I’m wrongER than you would have, or you’ll be even more embarrassed when you come crawling back. And remind me to tell you WHY I knew who the murderer was in TRRH (won’t say anything about that until you come back next week.)

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    2. While the whole fog thing does bump this down in my mind, I’m curious what the two of you think about the story telling order. Would this have worked as a purely linear story, or would suspicions have possibly shifted too early?

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      1. One of the most interesting things here is the fragmented nature of the investigation, which flies in the face of the clear, careful investigations most readers crave from their classic mysteries. I think the shifts back and forth in time add to this effect, as Dr. Riddle mentally gropes to remember the things people told him. We also don’t get every conversation: one of my book club members asked how Riddle could possibly know some of the things that happened to other people, and I don’t have a good answer to that.

        I also think this fragmentation extends to the denouement, where Riddle sits down, sorts out the facts, and comes up with the solution. In a Christie, Poirot will talk for hours and present a clearcut case that would befit a jury (and implies hours of work planning that speech beforehand.) His solutions go step by step, building suspense till he makes the big reveal. That’s not what Riddle does: he names the killer, explains for a while, and then realizes he has to make adjustments and REnames the killer! I know this isn’t a particularly realistic book, case, or solution, but it feels more . . . I don’t know, human? immediate? the way Riddle goes about his investigation and figures things out.

        I don’t know how you go about telling this story in chronological order without sacrificing much of what makes it a one-of-a-kind reading experience.

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      2. It could have been told linearly with only a few changes, but I don’t feel like that’s the point. How many stories have you read that are told this way? It’s unique. If this sort of style caught on, I’d quickly grow tired of it. For one hallucinatory experience, I loved it.

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      1. I prefer oil, Ken, but I don’t want to scare friends away! 🤪

        As for The Honjin Murders, I read AND reviewed that one many months ago!!

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  4. I don’t know that I’m a slow reader, but my circumstances leave me with only a few hours to read each Saturday and Sunday morning, and I’m lucky to avoid constant distractions throughout that time (good luck reading with a five year old). So, yeah, I marvel at people flying through a book a day, when I’m astounded if I manage one in a week, and feel happy if I make it through one in two weeks. Christmas vacation is this time where I’m running the numbers in my head about how many books I can get through if I average three days.

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  5. This book does divide opinion doesn’t it? I seem to be the only person who thought it was good but not great. But I agree it’s probably best read in a single sitting. I didn’t do that of course!

    There is something a bit like it though. The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson has some of the same elements. Thompson’s book doesn’t have the brilliant plot but it’s much more involving and disturbing.

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