Coming to Magna this year? You have a homework assignment: read Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett. This fall, we are bringing "One Festival, One Book" back to Magna cum Murder with Hammett's ground-breaking hyperkinetic 1929 first novel. We are asking everyone to read Red Harvest before you arrive at Magna, where we'll be talking about the book formally and informally throughout the weekend.
is the archetypal hard-boiled detective story, the basis for every tough guy you encounter on page and screen. It's a meditation on corruption and honor that feels more relevant than ever. Most importantly, it's a crackling good story: fast, furious, and engaging from beginning to end. As Jan Burke wrote in Mystery Muses:
The story of a tough but honest man set among warring gangs in a corrupt mining town could have easily become a cut-rate cowboy story. Instead, Hammett gave us a lean and finely crafted thriller. The dialogue snaps, and the story is sharp-edged, gritty and full of action. But like the heavy-set Op, it carries more on its frame than the average hard-boiled tale. Red Harvest
explores the effects of violence on all concerned, and not as an intellectual exercise. The reader feels the result of that exploration bone-deep. One closes the book feeling as if the Earth has doubled its gravity.
, James Ellroy talks about
not as a personal story of the effects of violence, but as literature and social comment:
Hammett views politics as crime most cancerous and genteel. It's crime buttressed by unspoken sanction. It's crime facilitated by a callous legal system. It's crime enforced by vicious cops in hobnailed boots. Hammett treats politics-as-crime in deadpan fashion... America was a land grab. That means all political discourse is disingenuous. That means his workmen heroes refuse to soliloquise or indict - they know the game is rigged and they're feeding off scraps of trickle-down graft... Hammett was the great poet of the great American collision - personal honour and corruption, opportunity and fatality.
And there's lot of academic comment on Red Harvest. In The Journal of American Studies, Andrew Pepper writes:
[The novel] calls attention to the state both as repressive and as a site of conflict and compromise. Here, the work performed by the Continental Op and by the crime novel in general - simultaneously buttressing and, to some extent, contesting the power of the state - needs to be understood as part of the process by which the state is consistently enacting hegemony (albeit protected by the armor of coercion).
At the center of it all is The Continental Op, Hammett's un-named everyman "hero." Who is he? What drives him? He's invited to Personville -- Poisonville, to the locals -- by a newspaper editor who's killed before they have a chance to talk, and he's invited to leave as soon as he fingers the editor's killer. But the Op fights on until he's completely upended the town. Why does he stay? In the end, has he accomplished what he set out to accomplish? Do the good end happily and the bad unhappily? Can we even think about Red Harvest this way?
Come prepared to discuss. We are looking forward to the conversations.