Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Red Harvest, by Dashiell Hammett

Our Canon book group decided to tackle a classic in the mystery genre for this month; we went with the "American hardboiled" style this time. I'm hoping we can read and discuss a title of its overseas cousin (the English cozy). This particular story is a fix-up (of several previously-published shorts) that Hammett collected and changed to make a smooth and fast-paced narrative for his novel (it's less than 200 pages, far smaller than most of today's standard paperbacks), published in 1929. I split this read into 3 short sittings (more by necessity than design), and only had a little trouble keeping the characters and their connections straight in my head. [A factor of age? dunno]

Hammett drew on his experiences as a Pinkerton agent for the narrator/character Continental Op and for the setting Person/Poisonville. The author does a good job of portraying the end of an era while including the experiences of both the power brokers and of the more common folk. I also found it interesting to read about Prohibition-era America and its accompanying batch of "criminals" who made their money from dealing alcohol.

This book reminded me of a much older genre--the Greek tragedy--in the sense that nearly everyone winds up dead by the end. Continental Op manipulated people and events to the overall but secondary goal, even though it put him at risk of having to ditch his identity or perhaps die. It certainly begs the question of whether the reader can consider C.O. to be on the side of "good." It seems to me that he's just as corrupt as the people he takes down. My bet is on the possibility that this was Hammett's point exactly. It must have seemed (back then) that the world was truly falling apart, that individuals could only live and act for themselves, and that there was no longer any real good in the world. Hammett captured that mood splendidly.

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