Tuesday, April 06, 2010

23. The Red Right Hand by Joel Townsley Rogers

I think that Mount Benson Report blogger HannibalChew gave me this book, mainly because of the cool cover, but it could have been for the book itself, which after having done some research, I see is fairly well known and respected by crime novel enthusiasts. The respect is well-deserved as this is an absorbing, unsettling and genuinely creepy book that manages to keep the reader guessing both in the fiction and at the meta-level, trying to determine if the author is messing with you or not.

Reading this book made me realize how much at times our expectations can inform our interpretation of a book. As a rule, I try to read as little as possible about a book once I've decided to read it, including (and often especially) the blurb on the back page or any business in the first couple pages. So I really had no idea what this book was going to be like. I did, though, have some assumptions based on the time it was written (1945) and the look of the cover. I thought it might lack sophistication, addressed to a simpler audience by a hack author. However, right from the beginning of the book, there is a strong suggestion of an unreliable narrator. There are a lot of hints that the narrator himself may be the murderer and while I was really enjoying the rich prose and the slow layering of plot (it keeps backtracking from the present, revealing more and more), I kept thinking to myself, 'either this book is really obvious and the narrator is the murderer and I'm going to be annoyed or there is something a lot more complex and interesting going on here.' It was my own built-in chronology = progress assumption that made me doubt the quality of the author. Fortunately, the characters, the situation and the narrative of the mystery, as well as the writing style, that my own hesitation only detracted from the pleasure of reading it at a couple moments.

The story is told from the point of view of a young surgeon, Dr. Riddle, whose car crapped out somewhere in Northern Connecticut. He stumbles upon a hysterical young woman who had driven up from New York City with her paramour to get married. Along the way, they had picked up a hobo who had then attacked the boyfriend, and failing to find the girl had stolen the car, with the boyfriend in it and gone on a bit of a crime spree, running over a local dog and a local resident. At the time you start reading the book, the county is alerted and there is clearly a lot more story and information yet to come. The doctor is at a country house with the passed-out girl. The authorities are out hunting down the hobo, but the doctor keeps dropping hints that there were other murder victims and other characters that the reader hopes to learn more about.

So the narrative structure follows this pattern of the doctor presenting a new contradiction or problem in the story and then going back in time to expand on that piece of the narrative. Sometimes, it seems to come from an omniscient perspective, the detail of someone else's story is so great, but he always reminds the reader that this is the doctor piecing everything together. But the doctor is weirdly connected to everything. He looks kind of like the hobo (whose almost clown-like appearance is lovingly and repeatedly described), the hobo's hat turns out to be an old one of his and his car was parked in a part of the road the hobo must have gone by with the stolen car and victim only the doctor never saw him. And he keeps referring to this headache. I'll leave explaining the story at that, because it is the unraveling of all the little pieces that is part of the fun for the reader. I'll risk a general spoiler in saying that the ending is satisfying and interesting. There is no obvious cop-out.

I was also quite surprised at the level of gore and violence. There are some harsh moments and descriptions here, including facial mutilation that would seem fitting in an episode of CSI:NY. Aside from being a really enjoyable read, The Red Right Hand is also a strong reminder for me not to make assumptions about the nature of a book based on when it was written. Shit was just as hardcore back in 1945 as it can be today.

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