RARA-AVIS: Red Harvest

From: Carrie Pruett ( pruettc@hotmail.com)
Date: 25 Oct 2001

I recently finished Hammett's "Red Harvest" and I'm leading a discussion on it for another list. This is a pretty sophisticated group of mystery readers with very diverse tastes and while we've had a few bursts of enthusiasm for the book, most reactions are along the lines of "dated,"
"dull," "I didn't care what happened to any of these people." Now I basically enjoyed the book. I liked Hammett's use of language, enjoyed the Op's voice, thought some of the plot twists were quite ingenious, and several thumbnail sketches of the characters (ripping this very apt term off Jack Burns/Bludis who is on that list and may be on this one too) were brilliant. Still, in a sense I was grading on a curve, working from the knowledge that this has been an extremely influential book. I'm not even going to pretend that I cared who was doing what to whom, on the occasions when I could even figure it out.

Now, if I had a mind to write a thesis on this book, there would be plenty of material. I can imagine making extensive charts of the very complex web of relationships the author has woven but - as someone essentially reading for pleasure, I just don't care. So I can understand the academic appeal of the book, to a scholar or a filmmaker interested in weaving in homages. This is Coen brothers heaven. But it does seem out of step with what modern readers expect out of a mystery - comprehensible plot, extensive novel-length character development. Hammett's up-front characterizations are very good; the characters are colorful and have distinctive voices, but we don't seem ever to learn anything new about them after they are first introduced (one of the perps is the only exception I can think of, and I thought this was the cleverest part of the book). I think part of the issue is that it's obviously a cobbling-together of several serial stories, and so doesn't quite have the unified feeling we expect from a detective novel.

So I know I'm taking aim at a sacred cow but does anyone agree with me that Red Harvest doesn't hold up very well? Was this ever a popular success in novel form?

I should say that I really like the Maltese Falcon and think it holds up very well for the average reader.


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