Red Harvest’s Femme Fatale, Part 2

The problem with making that assessment is that Dinah Brand has moved in the rarefied circles of Poisonville’s criminal elite, all of whom are marked for death by the story’s protagonist. She provides the Op certain information that is useful to him, but she is almost naive in the way she does. Later femme fatales, like Hammett’s Brigid O’Shaughnessy, will have conscious control of the damage they do, but Brand assumes that the information she provides will form part of a criminal investigation – the Op has no such intention. He also has no real intention of protecting her from the fall-out of her actions.

“Stop it, sister. If he’s that dangerous he’s just as likely to get you here as anywhere. So what difference does it make?”

“You don’t give a damn what happens to me. You’re using me as you use the others – that dynamite you wanted. I trusted you.”

“You’re dynamite, all right…”

The Op is speaking as a man of action, whose most-quoted explanation of his method is that

Plans are all right sometimes… and sometimes just stirring things up is all right – if you’re tough enough to survive, and keep your eyes open so you’ll see what you want when it comes to the top.

And who has in a previous work explained that “most men get themselves killed” and he’s not that way inclined. Brand, it’s fairly clear, is going to have to look out for herself – something she seems at least modestly well equipped to do. As it happens, when it comes to the physical rough-and-tumble that the Op routinely survives, Brand is not as well equipped, and she is killed in exactly the kind of quick and dirty fight that the Op has been shown to triumph in many times.

One way of looking at the Op’s attitude is that he is simply using her, another tool to be discarded once useless. If we come to this conclusion, then painting Brand as the dangerous female seems a little unfair. She is providing information acquired more-or-less legitimately over the course of her affairs, gotten from men who paid well for the privilege and without any illusions as to what was going on. Brand is, on the whole, a woman of negotiable affections. It is often commented that the Op alone does not pay for her services, albeit different services to the others – this is not quite true, because he provides her inside gambling information on an unfixed boxing match, and other incidentals. Brand is in this model, just another character trying to crookedly make their way through Poisonville’s dangerous atmosphere – she’s hitched her star to the story’s hero, and if she were a man, we would not for one second consider labelling him as a homme fatale no matter how much sway he held over the ladies.

Another way of looking at the Op’s attitude is that he has formed a genuine attachment to her. Hammett focuses almost exclusively on characters’ exteriors, so you must make an inference from character actions. Since character actions are often highly constrained by generic considerations (e.g. detection) that can be a bit tricky. Sam Spade will be the apotheosis of this technique: there is endless debate about whether he loved Brigid and at what point he realized she killed Archer. The Op is a less complex character, but it seems to me that he visits Brand several times where there is no real procedural purpose – he just likes her company. She is also the only person to whom he expresses any emotion at all, in the oft-quoted speech about how Poisonville has gotten under his skin and is driving him “blood simple.”

In that view, his refusal to protect Brand is a sign of respect – he marks her as more-or-less his equal, and up to the challenge of protecting herself. As noted, this is not a very good evaluation in physical rough-and-tumble, but in all other respects, Brand does appear to be more than capable of looking out for her own interests. We could summarize this perspective by saying that the Op has come to the conclusion that she is a femme fatale, not a damsel in distress. Brand has seduced men, bled them dry, then sold their secrets to their enemies – hardly a safe woman.

What I really like about Brand, and I guess about Hammett generally, is that both of these positions are well supported by different parts of the text, so ambiguity is always lurking. Umberto Eco made the argument that

Literary works encourage freedom of interpretation, because they offer us a discourse that has many layers of reading and place before us the ambiguities of language and of real life.

Which to my mind means that we are potentially doing a disservice to Brand (and Hammett) by trying to categorize her either way. Or to think about the situation in reverse: deciding that Brand is (or is not) a femme fatale does not help to explain any features of her actions or the text generally that are not otherwise clear. It is an empty classification. It does not explain why she works with the Op, it does not explain her allure to the men of the town, it does not explain why she keeps Dan Rolff as a pet.

The only thing it might explain is why Hammett kills her – because the femme fatale always gets her “due”. However, that is already adequately explained by the Op’s dramatic fall, and by the need to ensure he does not end the book as the villain, despite causing most of the deaths which occur in the town. Without Brand, the Op changes from hunter to hunted; a morally complex reversal that deserves its own treatment.

To an extent, this highlights that formula fiction concepts need to be used carefully. For me, Hammett’s refusal to comply with the strictures that were forming around his brand of detective fiction are what make him interesting – and provide an argument for literary value. It’s true that Red Harvest does not quite manage all of these concepts perfectly – it is a weirdly structured work. But it moves in that direction.

To my way of thinking, Brand forms the structural core of the novel, rather than the Op. The novel begins with spill-over from her careless affairs, and ends with the last of those affairs wrapped up. Once her final unresolved love affair is resolved, the novel wraps up with a virtual abandonment of the situation and a deus ex machina. Ultimately the man that Brand was unable to handle was the Op, and so if we are going to label anyone as fatale, there’s a good argument that it should be him rather than her.

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