The structure of Joel Townsley Rogers’s superb The Red Right Hand is the star of the show. Sure, there are numerous baffling murders (the most murderous book I’ve read since Death’s Old Sweet Song), loads of well-hidden clues, and enough dread to kill several nerves; however, it is the hypnotic overlap of past and present that makes all this red, red butchery sing. And sing it does–this is a masterpiece.
There are no spoilers here, but since the book is best experienced as a continual layering of carnage, I’d highly recommend you stop reading this and get yourself a copy. Then you can come back and tell me how right I was.
Dr. Henry Riddle (he doesn’t like to be called Doc) is driving along a road in New England when he picks up a woman on the run. What’s she running from? A murderous, corkscrew little man with red eyes, a clipped ear, sharp teeth, and a penchant for stroking dead cats. His name is Doc, and he killed the woman’s fiance with a knife. Then he cut off his right hand. Then he put the body in their car. Then he paraded it down the country road, cackling and running over a dog and a man and some artwork. He’s still in the woods, looking to cause a little more mayhem. This guy’s a real jerk.
There’s a problem here. Well, there are many problems, but the first (and most important) is that Riddle’s car broke down at the front of the road and he never saw Doc driving past him. It’s impossible. Everyone living on that road (from the postmaster to the old criminology psychologist to the aggrieved owners of the dog) saw this madman driving like a bat out of hell with his victim bleeding out on the dash. Riddle must have seen him. But he didn’t. He tells us so about fifty times. He tells us a lot of things again and again, almost as if he’s trying to convince himself.
The narrative device employed is that old noir favorite. Riddle is shacked up in a house obsessively going over the mystery as corkscrew starts killing off the characters with the alacrity (and omnipotence) of a pissed-off God. As Doc…I mean Dr. Riddle obsessively considers the evidence, a picture slowly forms, an ugly picture of tainted memory and all-consuming paranoia. He has a notebook of interviews and clues, giving us a fractured narrative which slowly takes shape. I love how the plot seems massive at the beginning (there are so many details and conflicting points of view) but gets tighter as it develops, eventually covering only a couple days.
And then (like Rim of the Pit and Whistle Up the Devil, and Death of Jezebel–Yeah, it’s that good) everything falls into place and it joins the fair play club. How far it strays into madness though! The phrase most reviews use with TRRH is a satisfying conclusion. The reason they use this rather boring phrase is because there is no point within the narrative the reader can possibly believe he or she will be satisfied by the ending. There’s no way this puzzle can be put together could end without some horrible psychological mumbo jumbo, right?
Nope. Perfectly reasonable…perfectly satisfying. This is murder whipped up out nothing and then explained with the wave of a disembodied hand. Gorgeous.