Playtime in Poisonville: Hammett's "Red Harvest"

(It should be noted that all of my posts are reflections on films and/or books in their entirety, and may not be suitable for the spoiler-wary.)

"'Plans are all right sometimes,' I said, 'and sometimes just stirring things up is all right - if you're tough enough to survive..."
-Dashiell Hammett "Red Harvest"

Just finished "Red Harvest" (1929), the second of two Dashiell Hammett novels I have read in the last month. The first was the more predictable (for a noir-neophyte) "The Thin Man" (1934). Assuming (quite weakly) that a pattern or preference can be established on the basis of two experiences, I would say that Hammett's trademark lean prose is perhaps too spare for my taste. Particularly in "The Thin Man," the simplicity of the sentences has a plodding quality completely at odds with Hammett's charismatic characters.

In fact, the two novels differ largely in the nature of their heroes. The sleuth of "The Thin Man," Nick Charles, is as reluctant a participant in the gruesome events of the novel as a protagonist can viably be. He is drawn in by his history as a private detective, a career which he abandoned in favor of a life of professional drinking and partying when he married the rich Nora, but he protests his disinterest at every opportunity until he actually solves the case.

The hero of "Red Harvest," by contrast, is self-destructively determined to insert himself into the business of a town where he is not welcome, a zeal for worsening the situation that he attributes to the contagiously "blood-simple" nature of the town itself. Unlike Nick Charles, he is still a professional detective, a noirish type made so self-abnegatingly anonymous here that he is never named (he is referred to by fans of Hammett as "the Continental Op"). He has been called to corrupt Personville (pronounced Poisonville by the people of the town) by a reformer who is promptly killed, and he eagerly takes up the role of scourge, staying in town and whipping up criminal discontent until the bloodbath has washed all notable villains out of town and into the afterlife (I have heard that "Yojimbo" is based on "Red Harvest," and this seems completely plausible to me). This transformation from Personville to Poisonville charts the progress of the hero himself, whose personhood is quickly erased by the venomous duplicity and bloodthirstiness of the town.

The novel has a certain serial quality to it (the hero, like a worker in a particularly gory assembly line, solves a bevy of murders and mysteries in the first half of the novel that are almost completely self-contained), and this, combined with a ruthless sense of the expendability of all the characters besides the protagonist, makes it hard to subsume yourself fully in the world of Poisonville. All in all, an intriguing portrait of a rotten community, although without much sense of mystery, suspense, or even narrative structure. But is that what we really go to noir for?

"Red Harvest" - ***

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