RARA-AVIS: "Red Harvest" and characterization

From: Carrie Pruett ( pruettc@hotmail.com)
Date: 30 Oct 2001

>Date: Mon, 29 Oct 2001 18:25:33 -0800 (PST)
>From: JIM DOHERTY < jimdohertyjr@yahoo.com>
>Subject: Re: RARA-AVIS: bloated characterizations?

>I think you're misreading Hammett if you regard his
>characters as "thumbnail sketches." It's precisely
>because he's able to so completely portray a character
>without sacrificing his economical style that is a
>testament to his skill. The others are not attempting
>to write in such a spare style.

I used the "thumbnail" phrase referring back to an earlier post. There I said (or meant to say, if it didn't actually come through) that Hammett's style (in "Red Harvest" specifically) is to introduce a character, paint a very effective portrait of him or her when introduced and then, with a few exceptions, leave the character be. All of the characters besides the Op are totally static and basically flat. They don't change and only in a few instances does the progress of the story reveal anything new about them. There's nothing wrong or bad about this, but it is contrary to the expectations of most of today's readers.

>Whether or not they'd
>be able to if they tried is a question I can't answer,
>but I'm damned sure that Hammett could've written, and
>write well, in a more expansive style, if he's chosen

Of course he could, he does it in Falcon with the complex relationship between Spade and Brigid (and Spade and Effie for that matter, probably a few others I can think of). The issue is not whether Hammett could have written Red Harvest in a different way than he wrote it but whether there is a middle ground between spare and bloated.

and Juri wrote:
>I was kidding, at least mildly. But they should read more Hammett and
>stuff like that, because the deep characterizations are not the only
>thing in the world. I've been asking myself (and Rara-avians also)
>whether the deep thoughts and other stuff make crime literature more
>literature. I don't think so. The style can be ripe and full even though
>the characters are not.

But it's a matter of taste. Plot and style can be interesting but ultimately I very rarely give a rip about a book if I don't care about the characters. I don't read mystery/crime novels for the "puzzle" or the plot or even the style, though they can be a bonus. I *like* styles and settings in crime novels, and I like the HB books I like because they combine these elements with full, interesting characterizations. My interests in
"serious" literature are similar, as for instance I don't give a rip for Gabriel Garcia-Marquez because however much style and philosophy there is in the books, his characters don't engage me.

>(And I should add that there is no book
>where interesting people make a good book without good style and/or
>interesting view of the world.)

I'm not talking about what makes a "good" book (whatever that means) but an enjoyable one. In which case I'll take the contrary position that style and world-view hold very little interest for me in the absence of good characters.
>(Haven't yet read any Connelly, but it
>seems that his books are huge, so they *might* be bloated.)

"Darkness more than night" definitely. And I can think of a few places he goes over the top with angst, but overall the depth of his characterization definitely pays off without sacrificing plot or action. ("Angels Flight" having perhaps the best convergence of plotting, characterization, and social commentary I've encountered in a contemporary novel, genre or otherwise).

But I'm more
>of a Leonardist: dialogue reveals more than deep thoughts and the action
>takes place in a clearly defined context, milieu and time, and therefore
>they tell us more than deep thoughts and characterizations.

I still haven't been able to warm to Leonard; I've taken a few brief stabs
(Get Shorty, Cat Chaser) and given up. I'm still trying, I've got Touch on my nightstand and another one word title I've forgotten is next up on my audio-list.
>I started Crais's "Demolition Angel" couple of nights ago. It's at least
>okay and it's not bloated, but I don't know what it adds up to to have
>the lead character dwelled in personal tragedy (the blowing off of his
>lover and herself). But a question: this is my first Crais and first to
>one translated in Finnish. How does it compare to Elvis Cole books?

Hmm, Demolition Angel is one I might say IS on the bloated side in terms of dwelling on the character's past trauma. This is the kind of book you usually get way down the road in a series when the author thinks "I'm out of things for Joe Bob to do, let's put him in therapy!" I like the Elvis books better; "L.A. Requiem" has moments of brilliance though definitely also suffers from some bloating (totally superfluous childhood flashbacks for one of the major characters). I like the fast-paced early books better; start with "The Monkey's Raincoat" if you can. My favorite is the 2nd in the series, "Stalking the Angel" which I found every bit as "deep" as LA Requiem without being so weighed down with its own importance. I do like all the books, though, and I'll try Hostage eventually.


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