Wednesday, August 10, 2011

THE crime story

Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest is, without question, the greatest crime novel ever written. I say this because it is the only crime novel (that I've found anyway) that is about crime and nothing else. It's not about criminals with hearts of gold or some secret code of honor. It's not subliminally about "family" as one finds in, say, The Godfather. It's not about some bigger humanistic or Shakespearean theme. It's just a town of crooks, all of whom are trying to pull the wool over everyone else's eyes, a society of grifters, killers, and corrupt politicians.  A Hobbesian smorgasbord.

The one man who might have some kind of moral ambiguity or Shakespearean quality is the protagonist detective, the Continental Op. But his efforts are partly mercenary, partly vengeful. Every faction believes he is somehow On Their Side, but he rats out every faction to every other faction -- in his own words, he stirs things up. The objective: to instigate a war of all against all, with every yegg cutting every other yegg's throat. A harvest of blood.

That's all there really is to it, and that's one of the reasons I adore it so. So piss on Gatsby and Holden Caulfield and little Huck Finn. I breathe the smoke and tar of smelter-stack Poisonville.

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