Saturday, September 14, 2013

Give This Man a Hand: Killing Time (2007), by Joel Townsley Rogers

Belatedly, here's the full version of the review!

Small publisher Ramble House does some great work in the mystery line.

Case in point, this volume of short fiction from the 1930s and 1940s by the American crime writer Joel Townsley Rogers (1896-1984), Killing Time. This book carries huzzahs from Ed GormanBill Crider and Bill Pronzini, which should tell you something.

not a sci-fi collection, but rather
mystery stories tinged with horror
Rogers is one of those supposed "one-work" mystery writers, whose name survives today on account of a single novel, The Red Right Hand (1945), despite the fact that he wrote a small number of additional novels as well as numerous shorter tales.

The longest story in Killing Time is, in fact, the original, novella version of The Red Right Hand. Like the novel, it's a brilliant piece of work; but there are some other highly noteworthy pieces in this collection as well, including the title tale, one of the best mystery short stories (or novelettes; it's about 15,000 words by my count) that I have ever read.

Many of you likely are familiar with The Red Right Hand (the novel).  It's indeed a classic, and the novella is great too.  It's the one that details the bloody activities of a maniac tramp hitchhiker (always the tramps!) on the loose in Connecticut, which includes slaying a prospective bridgegroom and severing his right hand.  Before the tale is over there will be many more killings to explain.

The Red Right Hand is told in a marvelously eerie and surreal manner reminiscent to me of Cornell Woolrich or Fredric Brown in some of his work.  But the most amazing thing is this: that buried in the nightmarish prose and utterly outre situation is a genuine fair play mystery--and quite a good one (albeit with a lot of improbable elements).

Someday I'll have to compare the novel point-by-point with the novella, but you should certainly read one of them--or both!  Both are tours de force.

There are five other tales in Killing Time, all but one really novelettes.  The one true short story, The Crimson Vampire (1938) is so absurd that it reminded me one of the "alternative classics" from the pulps that Bill Pronzini so hilariously analyzes in his Gun in Cheek and Son of Gun in Cheek (this story inspired the cover illustration of Killing Time).  Murder of the Dead Man, also from the 1930s, didn't do much for me either.  However, the other three novelettes are wonderful.

My Friend Death (1947) is a suspense tale of a mild-mannered bank clerk who retrieves a roundish parcel a man leaves behind--much to his regret!  Like in the suspense tales of Cornell Woolrich, there's a clever twist.  The Hiding Horror is a nicely-clued murder tale about the slaying of Hollywood actress Lila Lane.  There's fine suspense, as well as some good humor (not something we find in The Red Right Hand), as journalist Hapgood Bye (great name!) vies with the police to find a solution to the shocking slaying.  The Hiding Horror would make a great addition to any collection of true Golden Age detective short fiction.  There's some plotting gambits in here on par with Agatha Christie.

Joel Townsley Rogers
But my absolute favorite, aside from The Red Right Hand, is the title story.

Killing Time (1947) details the afternoon of a maimed World War II veteran (a marine) redundantly named "Tiny" Little (full name Reginald Meice Little), who is trying to make it as a pulp mystery writer.

As "Tiny" slowly thumps away at his typewriter, an extraordinary situation unfolds around him.

This tale works brilliantly on so many levels: as a clever murder story; as suspense; as knowing satire of the pulps biz; as a tribute to WWII veterans ("the greatest generation"); and simply just as good writing:

....Atom Baby said an inscription on his chest, beneath a picture of a well-developed young person, obviously of the female sex, and apparently a native of the tropics, since she had no clothes on.  Or, practically none.

The New York summer was hot.  The air in Tiny's furnished rear bedroom-and-bath was stale and windless.  The fabric of his pajama pants stuck to the varnished wooden seat of his rocking chair.  He sweated; and the Atom Baby sweated, and she jiggled when he breathed.

It seems Tiny has gotten to know a real life "Atom Baby," a beautiful but seemingly heartless young woman who lives above him.  Trouble ensues.

A really fine story on multiple levels, one I found ultimately rather moving as well.  If you've ever tried doing serious writing yourself, you should love this tale.

Ramble House has published an additional collection of Joel Townsley Roger short fiction, Night of Horror; and, based on my enjoyment of Killing Time, I have every intention of reading it quite soon.


  1. I love RED RIGHT HAND, one of those books that really lives up to its reputation. The only other story by Rogers I have is included in the ART OF THE IMPOSSIBLE anthology entitled THE HANGING ROPE but great to know that there are more out there - thanks Curt.

  2. Thank you for the appreciative review. Rogers certainly deserves a wider audience.