#14: Red Harvest (1929), by Dashiell Hammett

“I’ve got hard skin all over what’s left of my soul, and after twenty years of messing around with crime I can look at any sort of murder without seeing anything in it but my bread and butter, the day’s work. But this getting a rear out of planning deaths is not natural to me. It’s what this place has done to me.”

RedHarvest

“Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse … He put these people down on paper as they are, and he made them talk and think in the language they customarily used for these purposes. He had style, but his audience didn’t know it, because it was in a language not supposed to be capable of such refinements … Hammett’s style at its worst was almost as formalized as a page of Marius the Epicurean; at its best it could say almost anything.”
–Raymond Chandler, “The Simple Art of Murder”

“Backstory is bullshit.”
–David Mamet

When I was in high school I used to read a lot of paperback thrillers, the kind you can buy in bulk at used bookstores, like 3 for a dollar. They were quick, didn’t take much brainpower, and had me reading way past bedtime, back when I could still read in bed without zonking out in 20 minutes.

I’ve all but moved on from them at this point, souring on the formulas, but I recently had the occasion of looking through old boxes and revisiting some of these books. What amazed me is how little I remembered of most of them, even though, feeling the worn creases, I’d clearly read them. I’d scroll the summary on the back cover of these paperbacks and truly have no recollection of what happened in them, how the story got resolved, who the important characters were, and worst of all, whether I even liked the book. After finishing the book, I’d probably said, “Not bad,” and started in on the next one.

Such is the downside to heavily plot-driven fiction, I guess. Once you find out how these stories end up, you will not likely retain it for long — not without some incentive to.*

It’s been about three weeks since I finished Dashiell Hammett’s trailblazing novel Red Harvest and already I’ve forgotten most of what happened in it. I’ve got the gist of it, of course: Our hero, the Continental Op, gets called in to solve a murder, then sticks around to purge the city of its root corruption before getting corrupted himself. The body count is high. Nothing changes. Capitalism fails.

But, like, plot details? The betrayals? Who killed whom? I don’t remember. Who can? Heck, I was beginning to forget this stuff as I was reading.

It’s not because I didn’t read closely or wasn’t interested (though the byzantine storyline at times borders on incomprehensible); it’s because that’s not what I read fiction for. Not anymore, at least.

As my reading life has evolved, I find myself becoming increasingly disinterested in things like plot and resolution.** I’m tired of hearing folks base their entire opinion of books and TV shows on how they ended. The fanatical avoidance of plot spoilers largely escapes me. I wish the word closure would die a lonely death.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not looking for scenes where the characters stare at the sky for 30 pages, and I love a good twist as much as anyone. There is an art to plotting books, a craft to dropping enough crumbs to keep the reader going but holding enough back to keep him guessing. Done well, the effect can be exhilarating.

But if there’s one maxim I’ve learned to adopt, it’s that how an author gets from A (a novel’s premise) to Z (the conclusion) isn’t terribly relevant. As long as he plays by the rules of the universe he creates and it’s in the realm of the plausible, I’ll buy pretty much anything an author comes up with to keep the story going.

The plot can’t be the only thing driving a novel, though. Because guess what: a week or two after turning the final page, I’m not going to remember any of it, anyway. I’ll have finished another couple books and will be deep into a third (not to mention living a life filled with random bits of information), and at that point, who really cares how the protagonist wormed his way out of the jam in Chapter 15?

Red Harvest is a great novel not because of its story (though it’s got plenty of it) but because of its attitude, something the Pattersons and Cobens and Cornwells have had market-tested out of them. All the touchstones of hard-boiled detective fiction are here: the clipped dialogue, the world-weary detective, the acid humor. That’s what you’ll remember about this book years from now, not how Hammett connected some random dots.

Let’s face it, we all know when we get to scenes the author would rather have skipped, which in crime novels usually take the form of information dumps where a police detective goes over the evidence strictly for your benefit. He’s bored, we’re bored, but dammit, we need that exposition!

Hammett surely knew this, which is why he all but eliminates most of it. At the center of Red Harvest is a character without name or known history (other than that he’s arrived in Personville from San Francisco) and yet he’s able to carry the whole story on his pudgy, out-of-shape shoulders. Neither do the villains get anything resembling a sympathetic treatment here.***

Red Harvest comes lean and mean, short on needless exposition and packed with savory dialogue and cutting wit. For example:

“Don Willsson’s gone to sit on the right hand of God, if God don’t mind looking at bullet holes.”
“Who shot him?” I asked.
“Somebody with a gun.”

 

“So you’re a gumshoe.”
“That’s the bunk,” I complained. “I come all the way down to rope you, and you’re smarted up.”

 

“Reno and his mob were in the can.” … I turned to Reno and asked: “Isn’t that it?”
He looked at me woodenly and said: “You’re telling it.”
I continued telling it.

I can’t imagine Hammett spent much time fretting about potential plot holes or whether his story was “believable.” He must have known that his book flies through a series of logistically questionable action sequences and that the Op has the improbable gift of most fictional detectives, that of seeming omniscience, able to make sweeping conclusions long before anyone else.

But it doesn’t matter. In many ways, Red Harvest is a hard book to write about without resorting to rote summary. More than most of the others on this list, it really speaks for itself. If you love the novel, you know what makes it so good. It’s the rare book that influenced a million others that doesn’t carry that burden in its pages; it’s fresh, it’s funny, and when you pull it out of a box years from now, it will still hold up.

————-

*I understand that for most readers, an all-consuming, suspenseful story is the central appeal of paperback thrillers, the “I’m just looking for a diversion from life, not homework” angle. But I’m always amazed at folks who come to our library and check out a stack of these books, come back in a couple weeks, take another stack, and so on. How do they not get completely bored with them after a while?

**It may be better said that I’m tired of plot mechanics, those times when you can hear the gears grinding.

***Alex Kalamaroff on the lit-blog HTMLGiant calls Red Harvest a great political novel precisely because Hammett doesn’t jam his power-hungry characters up with backgrounds and deeper motivations. “There are no beliefs, no ideologies, no speeches,” Kalamaroff writes. “There’s just power.”

————-

Next up: John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath!

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