The Red Right Hand by Joel Townley Rogers

published 1945










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.

Comments

  1. Moira thanks for linking - glad you enjoyed it. The last paragraph you quoted has me wondering even more if Riddle was reliable - could you fake that look, if you were playing someone?

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    1. Now you're getting very meta, you are obviously even more suspicious than I was! I did strongly suspect someone - there seemed too many pointers.... can't say much without spoilering.

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    2. Now I'm suspicious of myself and the comment I made, because I am of course most untrustworthy...

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    3. For something so short it was a complex book....

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  2. Moira - Hmmm, I can see now that I will have no choice but to read this. And with Martin Edwards introducing the novel, really, it's not just my arms, but my left ankle too being twisted to read this. From all of you I've gotten the feeling that this is going to be a very absorbing kind of trip to the 'dark side,' so to speak.

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    1. Well we won't be twisting your RED RIGHT HAND, Margot, nor will we be CUTTING IT OFF. But in the end, you may have to bow to the majority decision!

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  3. This is one of my favourites - so glad to liked it too Moira as it does seem to polarise readers (but I still think we're right :) )

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    1. Absolutely we're right! Have you known about it for years Sergio? - I only came across it recently, and as always happens, now keep hearing about it from different directions.

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  4. It's always delightful when keen readers share one's enjoyment of a book, and I'm really pleased you like this one!

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    1. Thanks for yet another great tipoff Martin.

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  5. Moira; Your photo piqued my curiosity. I tried to find out more online about a sawtooth hat but could not find more than yourself. It does seem the writer had another hat in mind to me for the sawtooth hat you have and I saw online is a Stetson and they are a Western hat made in Texas. It is clearly a cowboy hat. I would be surprised if they have ever made cowboy hats on 5th Avenue in New York City.

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    1. Excellent points Bill, and excellent original fashion research! It hadn't occurred to me, but of course you are right. I can't visualize the bits cut out of the hat either - that wasn't a familiar idea at all, have you ever seen something like that?

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  6. I am sure I will try this book based on your take and Col's and the comments... but not sure if it will be my type of thing. And the author is also new to me.

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    1. I didn't think it was my kind of thing either, but I take my (sawtooth, suspicious) hat off to the author - I think any crime fan will enjoy it.

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  7. Given the date the book was published and the description, I'd guess that the hat looked like the one worn by the character "Jughead" in the "Archie' comic books. It seems to have been a fad to take a used hat that would have started out as a fedora or something similar and turn it into a sort of jester's cap with the brim cut into points and turned up.

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    1. Thanks Ken - that's very helpful. I have no mental image of what's intended at all, I don't think I have ever seen that. I just looked up Jughead and can see what you mean.

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