Saturday, September 19, 2009

Review - Red Harvest

I have always enjoyed mystery and crime novels, but I can't say I'm an avid fan of either genre. I've read a fair amount of Sherlock Holmes, Edgar Allan Poe as well as some Victorian Gothic fiction. I've read some Agatha Christie and other early/mid-20th century mystery/crime novels. I'd paid attention in history class and had a basic idea of life in and around the Prohibition era in America and the world of gangsters and bootleggers. And despite all of that, I wasn't entirely prepared for what to expect from Red Harvest.

The general style of the novel was intriguing from the onset. We're dropped into a gritty first person narration from an unnamed character as he wanders the streets of ‘Poisonville’ to meet some unknown client and then, later, to solve the murder of that client.

I really enjoyed the way the details of the story were presented. The writing was very detailed and the narrator conveyed his thoughts and perceptions very well. With the tight first person narration, the mystery for the characters was just as much a mystery to us. Even simple details such as names and places seemed to come on a "need to know basis." Thus, there existed the mystery of the crime to be solved, as well as the mystery of what details were being withheld from the reader and why.

As the story progressed, I grew attached to the protagonist as a cynical hard-nosed detective of the sort who "always gets his man." When he solved the murder, I was impressed by the logic involved and by his way of seeing through the prejudices and smokescreens around the case.

The way the case was solved was quite unlike a Holmesian solution in that there weren't any telltale clues at the crime scene or analysis of fingerprints or paper fibers. Instead, the Continental Op made a logical supposition and then through manipulative and threatening speech worked enough of a confession out of the killer to close the case. It reminded me of the intimidation tactics seen in so many of the crime movies and TV shows today.

I expected the confession to be incorrect since so much of the novel was left unread. Instead of letting the murder unravel, the plot took a different turn that I rather enjoyed. The corrupt "head" of Poisonville asks the Op to clean up the town and gives him carte blanche to do so.

The resulting manipulative method of setting crook against crook was a lot of fun. What was interesting to me, as the city grew more and more corrupt, was that our protagonist had become an antihero. Instead of the altruistic detectives of other early crime novels, the Continental Op was secretive, manipulative, vengeful and dishonest. He had an end goal in mind and he planned to achieve it at any cost. While he wasn't actually running a bootlegging or gambling operation himself, he largely became as corrupt as those he hunted. He compromised those around him who may be innocent or, at least, less corruptible.

Finally, he fell beyond the point of no return and concluded his downward spiral. At that point, I had no idea whether or not the story would allow the Op to be redeemed or if he would simply succeed in cleaning up Poisonville and then leave it a tainted and broken operative, ready to take his cynicism to the next case. While the Op did end the novel a bit more hardened and broken than when he started, the resolution did lighten some of his burden and return his respectability.

I definitely enjoyed my experience with this book. Looking to the few books I’ve read from the Victorian era, I can see numerous stark differences. The dialog was much harsher than that of a Sherlock Holmes story and the violence was more over the top and graphic than the Victorian Gothic novels I’ve read. The mystery was tight and well organized, but the clues were extracted more through force and intimidation than through insight and deduction.

What is even more striking to me is the pacing of the novel. While it did have vivid descriptions and various scenes of thoughtful internal monologue, the pacing was much quicker than the average 19th century mystery or adventure novel. While the story did expose many sides of human nature, the narrative didn’t pause for lengthy paragraphs reflecting on the motivations or psyches of the characters or of society as a whole. Any explicit analysis was concise and well integrated into the peppy, fast-paced world in which the action revolved.

The book’s first purpose seemed to be one of escapism and it does provide an exciting escape from a mundane life. The heightened action and quickened pace would coincide well with the quickly expanding world of the post-war Americans watching the world zip past them. Added to the speed is the vivid portrayal of the exciting and frightening criminal underworld which puts a human face on the stories people may hear about on the radio or speculate about as they drink their own Prohibition scotch and think about where it came from.

This book opened new storytelling elements and devices that are still being used today. It seems to create a new realistic novel that allowed it to show the darker underbelly of the world without flinching. It also provided a darker antihero who ends the novel only partially redeemed and yet more human and relatable.

Likely somewhat shocking at first, I suspect this sort of adventure was quickly accepted by the younger for its fast pace and “real” portrayal of the tenuous world of the 1920s. The older generation may have found it too shocking and may even have condemned its graphic and violent content. I can see the crime story of the 1920s as being a huge boundary pusher in terms of content and style in the same way that violent radio and then television, movies and eventually video games would continue to do over the next century. The shock value would be titillating to the younger crowd, intriguing to the middle generation, and hateful and offensive to the older generation engrained in the classic values of days gone by.

4 stars

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