I have blithely stated as fact that Hammett’s writing shares as a basic chassis the methods of a “Fair Play” detective novelist – there are crimes, investigations are carried out that yield clues which can be assembled into resolutions for the crimes. However, as I outlined in my introduction, Red Harvest uses this structure as a tool for telling another kind of story, rather than as an end in and of itself. This is the origin of the so-called “hardboiled” school of detective fiction, from whose shelter Chandler could boldly claim to be “fundamentally rather uninterested in plot.” That would be like Quentin Tarrantino announcing that he wasn’t interested in violence: it’s the fundamental thing his work deals in.
Hammett was interested in plot, and I carried out a close analysis of a couple of the short stories looking at the complex of clues and their solutions to check on that. What I found was that while sufficient clues were present, the bulk of the text did not really closely relate to the crime-solving matrix. It is doing something else, and so I needed a tool to try and decide what that something else could be and how it was embedded into the mystery-investigation complex.
Several tools were available, and have been used by others in the past. Whitley structured his analysis around the “Frontiers of Genre”. The argument is quite a good one, and essentially feeds into the kind of thinking I was doing when I saw a connection between Hammett and the Die Hard franchise.
The most interesting position he takes is that “Hammett raised death to a level of almost Jacobean melodrama which rendered it at once common and absurd.” His argument being that while murder features heavily in the work, that it has a completely different significance to Hammett than to, say, Christie. It is not a transgression, but a normalcy to be navigated and controlled. This is a brilliant insight, because it explains a large number of the features of the text which cannot be explained with reference to a “Fair Play” method. Where Whitely falls a little short is only in recognising that different deaths do have different significances, with a crucial handful operating both as a formal mystery and as a negotiation tool amongst the various killers.
Whitely goes on to point out the reversion in approach to murder that occurs in Chandler’s novels, implicitly separating Hammett from his successors. Chandler, for all his aesthetic sensibilities, has a fundamentally similar perspective to Christie et al when it comes to a body on the ground. At least, in his novels he does. The short stories, more closely aspiring to Hammett’s standard, do feature murder-as-medium to some degree.
Chandler too provides a way of reading Red Harvest in the form of The Simple Art of Murder. Indeed, Red Harvest seems almost perfectly aligned with his prescription for the setting of a hard-boiled detective story:
The realist in murder writes of a world in which gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities, in which hotels and apartment houses and celebrated restaurants are owned by men who made their money out of brothels…
But the very point, the origin of the action in Red Harvest is that gangsters can’t do these things, because without the rule of law you get anarchy. The city becomes unstable, with competing factions going to war. There is a surfeit of civilian casualties in Red Harvest, but nevertheless, the instability of the situation is highlighted at every opportunity. The novel closes with the action so out of control, with the city so corrupt, that Federal authorities are called in to clean out the city under martial law. It is, in that sense, an argument for authoritarian governance. Chandler, as argued elsewhere, has partially misconstrued Hammett in order to use him as a prop for his own conception of society and the outsider detective.
The city in Red Harvest is literally a “Poison”-ville, but it is the very instability and unsupportability of the arrangement which begs for the correction carried out over the course of the novel. It is not, as Chandler implies, a realistic state of normalcy, and the cleansing of Poisonville is far from redemptive: quite the opposite. As Chandler says, Hammett was not quite enough for him.
The city itself a point of significant critical interest that intersects with views of the Hammett of 1927 as a nascent communist. Different authors regard these things in opposite directions. The main contested claim is that specific scene locations and the characters exist largely within the confines of the working classes. The argument is that there is an implicit conflation of working class environments and criminality.
I would argue, however, that while working class characters intrude into the spaces frequented by the narrative and the narrator, so do middle class characters and their interests. The first quarter of the text is concerned with the murder of a man running a newspaper and the main aid in the investigation is a banker – hardly the working poor. The Op occupies primarily criminal spaces, and I think it’s clear that these transgress and intrude into all levels of society, from Chandler’s city-ruling gangster down to the down-and-out grifters. The conflation of space and criminality seems to me like an over-simplification rather than an explanation of why the narrative plays out the way it does.
This inhabitation primarily of criminal spaces means that there are precious few “civilians” in the tale, everyone (with one possible exception) who dies is “in the game” – crooked cops, outright criminals, blackmailers. To a large extent, that means that while there are something like 30 bodies, there are no true victims, only those whose skills are lacking. In this case, like Hamlet, that means damned near everyone.
I think that Red Harvest is a critical favourite because it is not a novel that provides many answers for its questions. It is a first-person narration where we are continually aware that our story guide is misrepresenting himself to others, withholding information from us, acting on conclusions and information that he knows to be false but which seem expedient. The Continental Op is far from being a reliable narrator, and he is operating in an environment where nobody else is either. Yet, we sense that the truth must be somewhere near what we are being told – after all, everything does eventually get resolved.
Far more compelling than simly “whodunit”, we are asked to figure out whatdun and whydun, and the answers seem tantalizingly close.