RARA-AVIS: Red Harvest

From: Bill Hagen ( billha@ionet.net)
Date: 04 Jan 2000

Mario wonders, "Has anybody been doing their _Red Harvest_ homework?"

Actually, I have, and since this list, uh, tolerates first impressions by those of us who have never read a given novel...

Going back to this Hammett after reading contemporary stuff is like a step back in time. More like gangster stuff than PI. Blast away all complexities,bullets everywhere, people drop all around you, but not you. Dunno--more believeable in fast-paced movies than a slow read across the page.

Remember that several have named this book as a probable/possible inspiraton for Yojimbo/Fistful of Dollars, and I see the similarities. The most strikingly similar scene is when Reno tells several men to come on out of a burning building with their hands up and then kills them. Seems to me that such cold dealing could itself have come from one of the actual gang wars of the 20s. Anyone?

The idea of turning a town against itself at least goes back to 19th century tall tale or confidence man fiction--King and Duke in Huckleberry Finn, or Twain's Mysterious Stranger or The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg
(or Faulkner's Spotted Horses). What's in common is that the sharpies in town can't win against the professional sharpies. What's different is that instead of having the hypocrasy or stupidity of ostensibly solid citizens exposed, minor league sinners brought to their moral senses, we have the darker vision of a community exposed as rotten to the core. Loss of faith in even ostensible goodness, as happens later in High Noon, marking (some say) the beginning of the "adult western." More likely the noir world coming into the western...which brings us round to the world of the spaghetti Westerns. Did appreciate Hammett's social history, from union troubles to rival gangs, to show the source of such poisoning of community.

Patterns or scenes that resonate include the many posed "solutions" to particular crimes--some posed for effect, some sprung as surprises (Op on the chief to set him up). All these solutions reminded me of conventional mystery writing--"Col. Mustard did it in the green room with the knife." And then there are the scenes where Op confronts his employer and unlike Marlowe in The Big Sleep, not only goes further than he was supposed to, but forces his employer to finish the job in town. His reason? Not so much a code (that I can figure out), as a desire to spread mayhem ("blood simple") as a sort of revenge for being shot at. And in all this incited gunfire, apparently no innocent pedestrians or neighbors catch a bullet. Yeah, right.

As one who reveres The Maltese Falcon, I seem to find earlier Hammetts, like Red Harvest, involve a lot of suspension of disbelief. Sort of like going back to action comics.

Bill Hagen
< billha@ionet.net>

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