Red Harvest: Beat Analysis

The process of doing a “Beat” analysis begins by breaking the text into pieces. Deciding where to break the text requires reading the text closely and looking for changes in emotion and/or function. Each piece is then assigned basically an emotional valence: hope or fear.

In his examples, Laws has some beats as short as each punch in a fight. This is a quite fine level of granularity for a novel, even for one as slight as Red Harvest. I tended to instead break beats where there was a change in the principle participants in a scene, or a clear change of topic, or a change in location. These are essentially pauses in the action, and didn’t seem to fit neatly into Laws’ scheme, so I borrowed the term “Recovery Scene” from Dirty Secrets.

This approach is essentially a “Reader Response” mode, meaning that you don’t necessarily need to pry into the causal links through the text. Instead you focus on the dominant tone of any given scene. This means that an interrogation scene which is structurally superfluous will generally generate the same emotional response as one which later turns out to hold the vital clue. Incidental scenes of minimal emotional impact can turn out to be pivotal in the way a story unfolds, and this mode of reading gives you no real insight into that. It is therefore only a limited perspective on a work, and structural inquiries must also be made.

However, using the beat structure that has been established, it is possible to make notes on the “utility” of any given scene from the perspective of the detection “meta-plot” AKA “super-text”. You could then track a kind of story progress alongside an emotional progress, in increasingly intricate timelines of the narrative. For now, however, I’ll just talk about the analysis as laid out by Laws.

All of the examples that Laws provides show what is essentially a flat-ish emotional decline. We move from a state of hope into a state of fear, but not necessarily by much. None of his examples have any significant upwards movements. This is quite different from the analysis I got out of Red Harvest.

It begins with a steep downward trend, as the situation in Personville is explained, then climbes steadily while the Op easily manipulates or dominates those around him in his quest to straighten out the crooked town. Once he’s in control, the situation oscillates depending on the circumstances, as he is sometimes behind and sometimes ahead in the scheming and death-dealing. That all changes for the worse at around the 2/3 mark, whereupon there are few if any up-beats.

This emotional structure is far closer to the trajectory for Hamlet or other tragedies, than for Dr No or other procedurals. Red Harvest is using the component parts of a detective story to do something else. But whose tragedy is it?  There are really only two viable candidates – the Op, and Dinah Brand his key ally.

Brand pervades the novel: it begins with a liaison at her house, and ends with the final resolution of her murder. She is intimately involved in all of the major plays that the Op makes, although not always in the way she wants to be. We have a few different ways of looking at whether it is her tragedy, but obviously we can start with AristotleThe Poetics suggests that Brand continues along a trajectory, then makes a mistake based on her “tragic flaw”, after which she suffers a reversal, which we recognize.

Brand’s flaw is represented as money, but as other critics have pointed out, she is essentially unpaid for her labours on the Op’s behalf. In truth, the mistake she makes is entangling herself with the Op, and allowing him access to the information she has. Her fortunes reverse, fatally, at just the moment when the Op pushes the town from simmering with violence into an outright boil.

In this reading, the cause of her fall is the Op. If she is the heroine, we must conclude that the Op is the villain who used her, regardless of the consequences. This is, broadly, the conclusion reached by Breu in Hardboiled Masculinities, where he argues that the work is misogynist to an alarming degree. Yet, even if we must regard the Op unfavourably, Brand’s role is the pivot of the story, and she is second most capable character in the narrative. Without her assistance, most of the Op’s plans and schemes simply don’t work. After her death, we are rarely hopeful for him. This means that a straightforwardly misogynist interpretation has problems, even if that is what we conclude on balance.

The Op is difficult to assess for the role. One of the innovations that Hammett is credited with is revealing more of the inner life of the detective, making him a character instead of a puzzle-solving cipher. This is up for debate, but I think that those critics were observing his detective’s more direct involvement in the action and mistook that for a rich inner life. The Op is, to borrow more from Laws, more of an “Iconic” figure, who imposes himself on the world to correct it, rather than a “Dramatic” figure who is changed by the world. Yet, in Red Harvest, we do get a different Op than previously, one who apparently forms an attachment to others and does let emotion cloud their judgement.

In this view, the Op’s mistake is giving into his repressed feelings of guilt at the mayhem he has unleashed. His “tragic flaw” here is succumbing to human emotions. If anything, this is a more disturbing reading than with Brand as the heroine.

The main problem with viewing the Op as a tragic figure is that while things do get dicey for him for a period, he emerges more-or-less intact. There is no sign that his failures have a lasting effect on him. This is partially because he denies that he has failed, and Hammett gives us no access to an interior life that might prove that denial to be just a front. There is no recognition, in Aristotle’s terms, and the reversal is temporary.

Considering these factors, I think we must conclude that Red Harvest is not a tragedy in a way that Aristotle would recognise. The emotional arc may be similar, but the functional parts of the story do not quite match what we define as a tragedy.

I have made the argument before that Red Harvest is one of the origin sites for the modern action genre, and I compared it to Die Hard. If you think about the emotional arc of Die Hard, it begins with a short burst of anxiety as the Tower is taken over by Gruber, but then we get a long sequence where John McClane is in an ascendant position. That reverses when Gruber breaks the glass, after which McClane is on the run until very near the end, when he finally defeats Gruber. Even his victories in that latter stage often cause more fear for him personally, such as the way he saves the people on the roof.

If we decouple Red Harvest from its historical context, it feels like a modern action story that makes use of detective elements. I think that shows a continuity in mass culture that is quite intriguing.

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