Saturday, August 6, 2011

On rereading Hammett: Red Harvest

I've talked with Dave about these observations, because at first I assumed no one else would be interested in them, but other recent conversations have convinced me that at least some other people would like to hear them.

About a month ago, I decided to reread all five of Hammett's novels. I'm mixing them into my reading flow so I give each one room to breathe in my mind, but I'm definitely going to visit them all again. I first read them as a teenager, so though I rarely read a book a second time, I wanted to see how the adult me would react to them.

If you haven't read Hammett, by the way, rush out, buy a collection of his novels, and enjoy stories and writing that paved the way for much of modern mystery (and other) fiction.

I'm enjoying the books, of course, but I what I want to address in these occasional blog entries are observations that I missed the first time.

Red Harvest, if you don't know it, is the story of a detective from the Continental agency who is hired to do a job in a town riddled with corruption and decides to stay and clean up the place. Hammett never gives him a name, but readers generally refer to him as the Continental Op. The Op takes out the various major corrupt groups by turning all of them against one another, so that one by one each kills the other's leaders and key troops.

Many movies have borrowed this plot, notably A Fistful of Dollars, Last Man Standing, and, possibly, Yojimbo. In all of these films, a lone, violent stranger enters a corrupt town, plays the fighting factions against one another, and leaves when all of them have fallen. I've watched and enjoyed all of them.

What struck me in reading the book this time is that all of those films share a key trait that the book does not: their protagonists are always loners, men who may make friends but who are fundamentally acting on their own. The Continental Op, by contrast, has the power of a big detective agency behind him--in a time when that agency's real-life basis, the Pinkertons, would literally take over towns by force.

The plot importance of this difference is huge. Major characters who might quite reasonably kill the Op rather than put up with him dare not do so, because they can't risk the agency's wrath. When he needs help, he makes a call, and two other operatives appear. If a meeting gets too tense, he drops the agency's name as a reminder that though he might be standing alone just then, he has a small army behind him.

The effect is to make the book far more realistic than the films, but to make the films more dramatic--exactly the sort of trade-off one would expect from filmmakers.

As a young reader, I missed the importance of the agency. As an older reader and writer, I greatly appreciate the way Hammett uses it.

1 comment:

Todd said...

I recommend Blue Harvest!


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