Red Harvest: Hammett v. the Brits

The Simpsons features recurring characters in a show within the show known as Itchy and Scratchy who star in a television cartoon that takes the mindless and deranged violence of such classic cartoon series as the Roadrunner/Wile E. Coyote and the Tom & Jerry. The sheer level of ever-increasing violence along with the copious amount of blood that spews forth from the ever-victimized Scratchy in comparison to the imagery of the abovementioned cartoon is an appropriate way to view the issue of the pervasive quality of violence that is found Dashiell Hammett’s detective novel Red Harvest as it relates to those which came before.

The bloodbath that ultimately stems from the Op’s moral concession toward the need to use violence to effective combat violence is the ironic equivalence of the revelation of the bloody aftermath of cartoon violence of the Itchy relative to the cartoon violence enacted by Wile E. Coyote and Tom & Jerry. The facts are these: any ACME brand product purchased and used by that Coyote actually would produce as much blood as anything ever seen in Itchy and Scratchy cartoon. Red Harvest was published in 1929, a mere two years after Arthur Conan Doyle published his last Sherlock Holmes story. Red Harvest is essentially Hammett’s reaction to the strangely unrealistic and almost unnaturally bloodless criminal activity most singularly represented by the British detective tradition. Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes are not the only members of this bloodless traditional, of course, as even writers publishing after the appearance of Red Harvest like Agatha Christie seemed intent on maintaining murder as a remarkably clean crime devoid of vicious behavior.

Lines like “Dan Rolff stood behind him, with a gun-muzzle tilted to the little gambler’s left kidney. Roff’s face was mostly blood” are an example of description that permeates throughout the novel that is the verbal equivalent of the embedded image of Itchy with his chainsaw and Scratcy with his hatchet. What is most ironic and amusing about this absolutely horrific description is that its understatement serves to replicate the entirety of the British detective story tradition in which people—usually gathering at a manor house—start dropping like flies as a result of the murderous iniquities that are absolutely no different from the psychological motivations driving characters like Pete the Finn or Reno Starkey. What makes the violence of Red Harvest such an ironic commentary on the genre can be related directly to Sherlock Holmes and, specifically, his alleged nemesis and criminal mastermind Moriarty.

Moriarty is essentially little different from Wile E. Coyote: he apparently has committed a number of criminal actions, yet there is curiously little blood attached to his villainy. On the other hand, it seems that a low-life of little consequence—and certainly no criminal mastermind—like Reno Starkey would be capable of taking down Moriarty’s entire criminal enterprise in about as much time as it takes him to remove Lew Yard from the world. Worth nothing is that Lew Yard is hardly a criminal genius as well. If Red Harvest teaches the reader anything about the issue of violence in the detective novel, it is that the pulp revolution in America brought into a much greater sense of naturalism and realism into the genre than the British tradition could possibly have ever managed.