It certainly was the damnedest-looking hat. Its brim had been cut away in saw-tooth scallops all around, and crescent and star-shaped holes had been cut in its crown, in the way boys and boy-witted men sometimes do to old hats. It was just lying there, with no one around that it might belong to, while in the woods and weedy fields on either side insects creaked and sang. I don’t know what impelled me to stoop and pick it up…
This cut-up hat had the texture of what had once been a good piece of felt, in spite of its dirt, when I picked it up. And no wonder , since it had the colophon of Haxler’s on Fifth Avenue, where I bought my own hats. I pulled down the sweatband —a 7 3/8. Looking more closely, I could see where paper initials had been pasted on the band. They had peeled off; but the stained and darkened leather was still a little lighter where they had been, and I could make their shape out: “H.N.R., Jr.”
observations: This is one of the moments where the proprietor of Col’s Criminal Library and I collide – he reviewed the book last week. And it is also yet another recommendation from crime writer Martin Edwards on his Do You Write Under Your Own Name blog – Martin wrote the introduction to this new ebook edition.
I’d never heard of Rogers, though apparently he was one of the great short story writers of the pulp era. He is best known for this short book. It’s a strange eerie story, best read breathlessly in one or two sittings, which is not difficult – it grabs you and takes you along for the ride. Which is what has happened to the main characters: rich young oilman Inis St Erme has run off with Elinor Darrie, and they are on a road trip to find a state where they can get married. They pick up a hitchhiker, a very strange-looking tramp, the wearer of the hat above, and continue on, but then something very nasty happens. And the mysteries get more involved: why didn’t the narrator, NY doctor Harry Riddle, see the death car, which surely must have passed him? Where is Corkscrew, the tramp, now? What happened to the right hand missing from the body, and why would anyone cut it off? Who are all the strange neighbours – I particularly liked the ‘refugee painter-musician-scene-designer Unistaire, half monkey half faun.. devising a surrealistic dance….dressed in a leopard skin, a feather duster and a chiffon nightgown.’ Hard to find that picture, but this (from one of the many Nina Hamnett entries on the blog) gets part way:
You start to suspect everyone, and you are meant to - the initials in the hat above, by the way, are those of the narrator himself. The explanation when it comes is complex and involved and very clever, and does leave you nodding in satisfaction. Rogers is a very good writer, adept at setting the scene and creating characters quickly – though I never did get the hang of the geography of the place, with Swamp Lane and Dead Bridegroom’s Pond and Whippleville, and I had to take it on trust that the car couldn’t have got past without Riddle seeing it.
You know it’s a noir story, and the setup is clear from the opening lines, and still you can enjoy sentences like these, in a flashback about the young couple:
For a moment they stood smiling at each other, out of sheer happiness over nothing. That she thought 50 dollars was much money. That he didn’t even know the cost of women’s hats.
- the writing could come from what would be seen as a much more literary novel. Great stuff.
The hat somewhat defeated me. At first I thought it was ‘sawtooth’ because it had bits cut out of it, but now I think not. There is a kind of hat called a sawtooth made by Stetson, but I can’t establish whether that is just the style name, or if it refers to the way the crown is punched into shape. Anyway, the hat in the top picture is a Stetson sawtooth hat on sale from the good people at Quality Hats.