RARA-AVIS: Hammett pulp novel

From: Greg Swan ( greg@swans.org)
Date: 03 Feb 2000

Finally finished Hammett's Red Harvest. Since I took the time to read it, I'd still like to post a few comments -- even if I'm a couple days late.

For some reason, I had decided Red Harvest would be a bit more literary! I was actually a surprised at just how true to the pulps it was. First, it had the ultra short sentences and tiny paragraphs that helped make pulp magazines accessible to the working class.

Also, it appears the "novel" was a collection of 4 short stories. For instance, the first 50 pages or so (I have the 200 page Vintage paperback edition of the book) are pretty much a self-contained murder mystery. Then we have 50 pages which end up with McSwain -- well, I don't want to spoil it. The third 50 pages involve the Op's detached manipulation of the town's leaders. The last 50 pages feature another murder mystery. That was fairly typical for the times. Pulp editors liked to have stories start and end in the same magazine, so they'd only buy novelettes and short stories. However, short story collections were a real tough sell in the hardback book market. Many pulp writers tried to get the best of both worlds (and two paychecks) by writing stories which could later be pasted together and remarketed as a novel. As little as the pulp writers got paid, some went to great lengths to accomplish this. Probably the worst example of this practice I've read was a Hopalong Cassidy western novel where Clarence Mulford assembled a dozen very short stories, labeled them as chapters and didn't even bother to write connecting sentences. I think the publisher even got a few out of order! Anyway, these novels are a strange experience if you're expecting one long story. The pacing is a bit odd as the stories gain speed, then rest for a while, then gain speed again. Anyone know for sure if Hammett wrote Red Harvest as a series of 4 shorts?

There's not much characterization, of course. People kind of walk on and walk off stage with only their names to really differentiate one from the other. That's ok if you're short term memory is good and you can remember names well. As an aside, these stories pre-date tagging, an ALTERNATIVE to characterization which later became all the rage in pulp writing. (Tagging involves giving a character one or two odd properties and referring to them incessantly. Lester Dent was one of the "best" practitioners. Doc Savage has flake-gold eyes and trills. Monk is hairy and carries a pig(!) everywhere he goes. Ham is dapper. In fact, I see the defective detective fad as one aspect of this larger tagging phenomenon.)

I did note what might be a departure from standard pulp fare: In the first 150 pages our hero was never really in all that much peril. I don't recall running across too many early pulp stories in any genre from the 20s and early 30s where the lead character wasn't menaced in some way. For instance, Carroll John Daly's Race Williams was almost always in peril. But then, I've argued that Daly wrote adventure stories, not detective stories.

Red Harvest was also plot heavy without much in the way of description or atmosphere, which is another hallmark of fiction from the pulp period. I wonder if part of that was because newspaper men so dominated the pulps? And was Hammett a newspaperman? Sure seems like it. Hugh Cave, a long-lived pulp writer, tells of how one of his attempts at writing a paperback original in the 1980s was returned with a note saying something like "great outline! can you make it into a story?"

Unfortunately, I'm not much of a mystery buff so I don't appreciate really, really complicated plots which must be puzzled out. I tend to lose interest, which probably tells you how much I enjoyed the book -- without me having to come out and say it.

All-in-all, I found it to be a nice piece for its period. If I'd been reading Nick Carter mysteries all my life, this book would have blown me a way. In the year 2000, though, it's not a novel I'd recommend to someone I was trying to interest in hardboiled fiction. Instead, I'd probably go with one of the first few Lawrence Block Scudder books, which are still quite tough but much more accessible to modern readers.

Greg Swan

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