#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.”


“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.*

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