Joel Townsley Rogers' mystery novel The Red Right Hand began as a short story that at some point fell into the hands of Lee Wright, an editor at Simon and Schuster. On July 7, 1944, Ms. Wright wrote to Rogers. "I have fallen very much in love with THE RED RIGHT HAND," she effused, "and would love to discuss with you the possibilities of lengthening it to fit book publication." The short story version appeared in New Detective Magazine in March 1945. A couple of months later, Simon and Schuster issued the novel-length version in hardback as part of its Inner Sanctum series. A paperback edition by Pocket Books followed in October 1946, and The Red Right Hand has been reprinted several times since. I have the Carroll and Graf edition of 1983 and will use page numbers from that volume. (1)
The Red Right Hand is a murder mystery/detective tale. The detective (and narrator) in this case is a medical doctor named Henry N. Riddle, Jr., nicknamed Harry. His story, then, is a hairy riddle. The doctor himself is a riddle, and for a time, you don't know whether he can be trusted to tell the story or not. I'm still not convinced that he has told the whole truth.
The Red Right Hand is an odd story. It's non-linear--which is to say modernistic--in how it is recounted. Dr. Riddle circles around the events of the story, moving back and forth through time and looking at things from different angles in his attempt to untangle the mystery. His solution comes in real time, as, at the beginning of the novel, he does not yet know who the murderer is. (For a while, I had a feeling that he was the murderer.) The Red Right Hand is also unusual in that Riddle solves the mystery not by flatfooting around a city like Philip Marlowe or a hundred other tough-guy detectives but by sitting at a desk in a darkened house as the fiancée of the murdered man sleeps on a nearby couch and the voices of searchers resound in the night outside. Again and again he asks himself a number of questions, the foremost of which is:
Where is the killer now?
For I have a cold and dismal feeling that he is somewhere near me, no matter how far off the lanterns move and the voices call and the hounds bay. And near the sleeping girl beside me, his victim's wife to be. A feeling that he will strike again. That he knows I am somehow dangerous to him. Though how, I cannot yet perceive.
Somewhere in the darkness outside the window.
Or nearer even than that, perhaps. Inside this creaky two-hundred-year-old-hill-country farmhouse itself, it may be, so silent now and temporarily deserted of the hunters. (p. 10)
Riddle, who wanders freely through time and space in trying to solve the mystery, is also bound in space to his desk and by time to do so before the killer strikes again. There is throughout the story a palpable sense of menace and terror, of an unknown and unseen killer close at hand and ready to fall upon the narrator at any moment.
The Red Right Hand is non-linear, as I have said. In addition to the non-linear narrative, there are webs of connection and coincidence so uncanny and bizarre that they call into question Riddle's reliability--even his sanity--as the storyteller. In addition, there are enough red herrings to fill a driftnet. The overall sense is that this is a dream. Riddle names the dreamlike and nightmarish quality of his story only at the end:
"What is there to tell?" he [Rosenblatt, the police detective] said.
"Nothing but that it was all a nightmare," I said. "A bad dream without reality."
"That's all it ever was," he said. (p. 191)
* * *
I have noticed that in postwar culture, there seems to have been a movement towards the strange, bizarre, and otherworldly, towards dream-states, nightmares, hallucinations, and other altered states of consciousness. You'll see that in movies as varied as Spellbound (1945), The Boy with Green Hair (1948), and Invaders from Mars (1953). The war itself, with all its horrors, explains some of that. The arrival or importation into America of European intellectual ideas such as psychoanalysis and surrealism played its part as well. Postwar pseudo-religions based on science fiction owe a good deal to those developments as well. Dianetics and Scientology grew in part out of psychoanalysis. The myth and pseudo-religion of flying saucers, especially the contactee and abductee phenomena, are replete with accounts of dreams, nightmares, hallucinations, and other altered states of consciousness.
By no coincidence, perhaps, there is in The Red Right Hand a surrealist artist whose presence offers a clue as to the author's purposes. The artist's name is Unistaire, and, like Salvador Dalí, he is from Spain (though not Spanish but Basque in nationality). It is Unistaire who diagnoses the crime:
"This is definitely a surrealistic murder. It is the murder of a genius. It has symbolism." (p. 133)
He calls the men investigating the crime "too much the routine policemen, thinking only in terms of moronic killers for gain" and Dr. Riddle "too pragmatic and unimaginative to understand it," continuing: "What you need is to believe with all your soul in phantasms which cannot possibly exist." (p. 133) Unistaire believes that he alone, as an artist, sees the situation clearly:
"A surrealistic murder!" he said with delight. "And it takes a surrealist to interpret and explain it. I have the key. I understand the symbolism. I will interpret and explain it. Give me a quarter head of moldy cabbage, a wig, a pair of glass eyeballs, an old umbrella, a dressmaker's form, a cube of ice, and a copy of Mein Kampf with the title printed in red letters, and I will put the picture together and explain it." (p. 134)
Some of those seemingly random and unrelated objects are actually clues--the cabbage, the wig, the glass eyeballs. The color red figures prominently in the story--the red right hand; Dr. Riddle's red hair; the red-haired dwarf, also called "Doc"; and so on. But my eyes immediately lit upon those words, a dressmaker's form, for just a few months back, I wrote about a real-life surrealistic murder, about Dalí and other surrealist artists, and about dressmaker's dummies. The murder was of Elizabeth Short, the so-called Black Dahlia. She was killed on the morning of January 15, 1947, less than two years after The Red Right Hand was published. (2)
* * *
Right before reading The Red Right Hand, I read Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré. It's a good book and was well read and well received. The Red Right Hand on the other hand is known only to a few fans of mystery. So is Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy a better book? The general opinion seems to be "Yes," but why? Is it really better, or is it considered better because it was written with a British accent? There is to be sure a moral dimension to Mr. le Carré's book. At first glance, that would appear to be lacking in The Red Right Hand. Also, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy appears to be more serious and sophisticated. I might object to that characterization for two reasons. First, the solution to the mystery hinges on a slip-up by the mole that might have a better place in a Dr. Haledjian mystery than in a major novel. Second, it's entirely too easy to make the mole--the bad guy--the same man with whom George Smiley's wife has had an affair. A more complex and perhaps more realistic solution would be for that man not to be punished for one transgression by being punished for another. Instead, Smiley--and by extension Mr. le Carré, who had when writing the book recently gone through a divorce--gets to punish the man who has wronged him. That's not to say the solution in The Red Right Hand works out well in terms of storytelling, for it seems to me too mechanical and too dependent on multiple coincidences. I didn't let that spoil my enjoyment of the story however.
As for the moral dimension of one vs. the other, The Red Right Hand seems to be simply an entertainment. But Joel Townsley Rogers hit on something in his book, identifying early on a kind of killer who is entirely too familiar to us now, the psychopath or sociopath. Dr. Riddle asks the question:
Assuming his brain is not just a dead jumble of loose cogwheels and broken springs, what is he trying to accomplish--what makes him tick? (p. 6) (3)
He approaches the problem as a man of science, a rational man, a physician--but also perhaps as a psychopath, for one way of looking at the psychopathic killer is as a person without a soul who wishes to open up his victim to see "what makes him tick." When the body of Inis St. Erme, the young woman's fiancé, is found, it's skull is also found to have undergone a crude trephine. (4) Dr. Riddle describes it:
"It wasn't an operation with any sense to it, either. It looks like some crazy man trying to get an idea out of St. Erme's head with an auger after he was dead." (p. 138)
There it is again, something we have seen before, namely, the psychopathic killer opening people up, trying to find out what is inside them, what animates them, trying to uncover the mystery of the human soul or spirit which seems to be lacking in the killer himself. And as I said, the psychopath shares much with the medical doctor, who tends to see the human body as a concatenation of cells, tissues, and organs rather than as the seat of the sacred human self. Again, Joel Townsley Rogers, in a lowly pulp novel, diagnosed the problem:
Old Adam [MacComerou, author of a textbook on psychopathology] . . . . had naturally found some amusement in pricking, in his quiet way, at practitioners of medicine and surgery . . . . One of the most interesting chapters in Hom. Psych. was one called "Jekyll-Hyde, M.D.," in which he had gathered together the case histories of murderers who had all happened to be doctors. I'll admit that he had plenty there. (p. 95)
The mole inside a spy agency makes for a nice villain, but he has shown himself to be a man of his time. The psychopathic killer, including the killer who acts out his bloody and bizarre pseudo-artistic or pseudo-intellectual theories, including also the medical doctor or surgeon, who sees people not as human beings but as soulless machines, is a killer who survives into the present and will very likely be with us for a long time to come.
(1) The quotes and publication history here are from a web page entitled "Joel Townsley Rogers-Writings" at this link.
(2) To read more on the Black Dahlia murder, click on the label on the right.
(3) Notice the imagery of time passing and also of a mechanistic and atomistic view of the human person.
(4) The victim's name is odd but significant: try rearranging the letters to see what you get. A hint: it's what the opposite of the hand named in the title of the book might say.
Coming soon to this space: An image of the cover of The Red Right Hand.
Original text copyright 2016 Terence E. Hanley