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Red Harvest – Andy doesn’t mind getting a bit hard-boiled

November 4, 2014

Genre fiction can be a problem for a long-term lover of reading. As a kid I loved genre – scifi mostly, but also The Hardy Boys and those Adventure things Willard (not Vincent) Price wrote. And the first “adult” novel I remember reading (and thinking, “This is an adult novel”), was The Day of the Jackal. But then you hit your late teens and early twenties and you think you’re too smart for genre anything, and you stop watching Doctor Who, which is actually pretty easy because it’s not on the telly anymore and anyway it was awful after Peter Davison left, you give all your Agatha Christie novels to the op shop…

As an adult, of course, if you keep reading, you realise that genre fiction is still awesome, when it’s well done, anyway – and in fact you wonder, sometimes, if “genre” is the basis of all literature, and all storytelling, ever.

These are some of the things that occurred to me as I was reading and after I’d finished Red Harvest.

hammettHaving done a modicum of research about Dashiell Hammett since finishing Red Harvest I realise there is even more about this writer to enamour me – his left-wing activism, his relationship with Lillian Hellman, what they went through during the McCarthy obscenities,, his service during the first and second world wars, her alleged dishonesty, according to some, about pretty much everything – Hammett and Hellman and their relationship and the epoch they inhabited – this deserves excavating. Who’s got a shovel?

Red Harvest was published in 1929 and predates the Depression by months. I wonder whether it deserves to be analysed properly next to The Great Gatsby (it probably has, and I just don’t know about it). In Gatsby Fitzgerald, without actually knowing it, obviously, predicted the Depression, but a few years earlier. Hammett doesn’t predict the Depression. He just presents a microcosm of corrupt, capitalist, small-town America (read: America) and he laughs, and laughs, and laughs.

Red Harvest is a cynical, witty book. It’s also, as you’d expect from a work of genre fiction, utterly involving. Sure, it’s not convincing at every turn but it’s convincing enough – and there is one point, about two-thirds through I think, that turns the whole story on its head in a way that tells me Hammett, hard-boiled spinner of genre nonsense, knew exactly what he was doing. Fitzgerald gave his unreliable narrator a name. Hammett didn’t, but he’s almost as unreliable – withholding information from the reader on a number of occasions, allowing the reader to think that maybe he’s a murderer himself. There plenty of clever sleight-of-hand storytelling on show here.

Character might not be Hammett’s strong suit – there are a bare handful of very well-drawn and developed characters here, and quite a few who are mostly cardboard cutouts. This didn’t bother me too much – it is genre fiction, after all – but Netty might have more to say about that.

Fitzgerald and Hammett don’t have much in common, except writing around the same time. Fitzgerald is the better writer, but Hammett has been mostly, and unfairly, ignored because he was a genre writer, and perhaps because he was a commie. Earlier this year, after reading Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior, I immediately ordered (and have since read) her other two collections of short stories. I’ve already downloaded (for 99 cents) a collection of Hammett’s short stories. Enjoyed Red Harvest? Just a bit.

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