Re: RARA-AVIS: Red Harvest

From: Mark Sullivan (
Date: 25 Oct 2001

Carrie wrote:

"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.""

Although I would argue against the notion that Red Harvest is dated or about not caring about any of the characters, I can at least understand where these criticisms are coming from. Some people don't like period pieces, even if they weren't in their day, and the Red Harvest plot has been recycled by so many, it probably would not seem new to someone reading it for the first time. And some people can't find themselves caring about characters they don't like, but I think Hammett's characters are always thoroughly interesting, even if often unlikeable.

But dull? I'm with you, Bill, how could anyone find Red Harvest dull?

"But it does seem out of step with what modern readers expect out of a mystery - comprehensible plot, extensive novel-length character development."

To tell you the truth, this latter trait is one of the things I find so frustrating with so many current mysteries. They expend so many pages of deep characterization and background for what are essentially stock characters. I know it's not hardboiled, but a particularly egregious example of this was Balducci's Absolute Power. I'll give him props for the plot, but he could have cut a third to a half of the book and it would have been a taut thriller. Instead the book was bloated with all sorts of unneeded and cliched stuff about the father-daughter relationship, etc. It's not like we hadn't already seen every single one of these characters in numerous other thrillers.

I've always thought that one of the greatest skills of Hammett, Gores and Ross Thomas, to name but a few, was their ability to capsulize a character in a relatively brief description. Thomas was a particular master of this, and he would do it with all of his characters, no matter how minor. As someone noted not too long ago, he would spend just as much time introducing a character who would die two pages later as he would one who would appear in three more books.


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