Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Dashiell Hammett, Red Harvest (1929)

I had never really read anything in this milieu before, so I thought I oughta.  The protagonist and narrator of Red Harvest is a nameless operative for a San Francisco detective agency seemingly based on the Pinkertons, and can you believe they still exist?  He is called in to a town called Personville (colloquially referred to as "Poisonville"), but the man who called him is murdered before he even gets to meet him.  He spends some time looking into the guy's murder, but not much; the bulk of the novel consists of him "cleaning up" the town by orchestrating conflicts between the various criminal groups that de facto run the town.  Then, he leaves.

Here's the most noticeable, and maybe the most important, thing about Red Harvest: there are a lot of murders over the course of the novel.  Like, round about a few dozen.  But Hammett gives them essentially no weight.  Important characters are killed left and right, frequently off-stage, and there's no emotional import to any of the deaths.  When they do occur on-stage, it's never at all graphic, and Hammett has this thing he does where he elides the actual moment of violence, like so:

The gray-mustached detective who had sat beside me in the car carried a red ax.  We stepped up on the porch.

Noise and fire came out under a window sill.

The gray-mustached detective fell down, hiding the ax under his corpse.

The rest of us ran away.

To me, it looks as though the text is intentionally calling attention to its status as a text: the way it constantly denies that this is a world where any of this stuff has any impact.  It feels like paper dolls being shuffled around.  And the laconic, largely emotionless narration doesn't help either.  It's not even like Hemingway, where all sorts of emotional turmoil is meant to be going on underneath the surface.  It's just what it is.  At one point and one point only does the narrator bare his soul, lamenting that the town--living up to its name--is poisoning him by making him enjoy doing this manipulative stuff that leads to people dying.  But that idea doesn't seem to suffuse the novel (though certainly the move from "Personville" to "Poisonville" is an obvious metaphor).  It's pretty nihilistic, and I'm not totally sure to what purpose, if any.

Of course, Red Harvest is also--so I gather--one of the prototypical hardboiled detective novels, with that particular style.  However, I thought it was generally pretty restrained in that regard, not really the sort of thing you would see pastiched in Tracer Bullet.  Truth be told, I'm kind of fumbling around trying to find a reason why I should like it more than I did.  The tone's effectively controlled, and I guess Hammett succeeded in what he wanted to do (assuming what he wanted to do was to create this kind of surface-y world), but I am not one hundred percent sure I should actually care about any of it.  There are no characters to latch onto, nor much that was of any great thematic interest to me.  This was Hammett's first novel; maybe one of these days I'll see what I think of his later work.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Gregory pontificated to the effect that...

It's been a while since I read Red Harvest, but rather then saying Hammet gives the murders no weight, wouldn't it be better to say that the narrator gives them no weight? A character who is never given a name other then his job, the Continental Op, who responds to waking up in a room next to the murdered corpse of a woman by calmly and systematically wiping away all of his fingerprints, and who is totally indifferent to the deaths that he encounters and causes? He probably does see them as paper dolls to be moved about.

Of course, if the point of a book is to show how emotionally dead someone is, it does run into the problem that "emotionally dead" isn't necessarily super interesting. I never bothered to read the other Continental Op novels myself.

Anyway, I'll see you soon.

11:08 PM  
Blogger Regular GeoX pontificated to the effect that...

You might could be right, but, as you indicate, it's not totally clear what you DO with that, or why it's worth pursuing.

Hope your trip runs smoothly. You'll be exhausted, but you'll make it. I should've advised you earlier to bring one of those neck cushions they make for long plane rides.

2:03 AM  

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