Sigh. Not my cuppa tea.
The world of noir is too dark and dangerous, too populated by testosterone-poisoned men and cloying over-sexed women (or vice versa, in roll-reversed contemporary versions of the noir motif). Everyone is busy, single-mindedly protecting some favorite racket, be it blackmail, bootlegging, or "business" connections. Everyone, including the Op, corrupt or corruptible. Predictable and a little dull, even with all the fights and chases. There’s nothing particularly “mysterious” or puzzling about the plot—the biggest question being whether or not Mr. Op himself killed The Girl (Dinah, she’s called, the femme sporting red lips and torn dress stretched out dead next to him, an ice-pick in her heart. Who knows what one might do after drinking that lethal cocktail of gin and opium, a concoction from which Op awakens none the worse for wear. Does anyone care? I didn’t.
The end brings no tragic catharsis, only a breather. For a moment, Evil seems to be put down. But soon Evil will pop up again, like a cartoon character after a good smashing.
Oh, there’s lots of action, lots of blood, but for the most part the story reads like one written by a drunkard. Perhaps it was. Things don’t make much sense. Sentences are short, description minimal. Even the fight scenes suffer a kind of brutal reductionism. There is a fundamental meaninglessness of the noir mode that I find predictable. And the superficial understanding of Evil.
To be fair, there’s a momentary lull about three-quarters of the way through, a brief moment of reflection: things seem to be getting rather too gloomy for our narrator, the operative, he feels himself being drawn towards the dark side.
Dinah Brand reached across the table and patted my hand. Her eyes were uneasy. She said: “It’s not your fault, darling. You said yourself that there was nothing else you could do. Finish your drink and we’ll have another.”
“There was plenty else I could do,” I contradicted her. “Old Elihu ran out on me at first simply because these birds had too much on him for him to risk a break unless he was sure they could be wiped out. He couldn’t see how I could do it, so he played with them. He’s not exactly their brand of cut-throat, and, besides, he thinks the city is his personal property, and he doesn’t like the way they’ve taken it away from him.
“I could have gone to him this afternoon and showed him that I had them ruined. He’d have listened to reason. He’d have come over to my side, have given me the support I needed to swing the play legally. I could have done that. But it’s easier to have them killed off, easier and surer, and, now that I’m feeling this way, more satisfying. I don’t know how I’m going to come out with the Agency. The Old Man will boil me in oil if he ever finds out what I’ve been doing. It’s this damned town. Poisonville is right. It’s poisoned me.
“Look. I sat at Willsson’s table tonight and played them like you’d play trout, and got just as much fun out of it. I looked at Noonan [the sheriff] and knew he hadn’t a chance in a thousand of living another day because of what I had done to him, and I laughed, and felt warm and happy inside. That’s not me. I’ve got hard skin all over what’s left of my soul, and after twenty years of messing around with crime I can look at any sort of a murder without seeing anything in it but my bread and butter, the day’s work. But this getting a rear out of planning deaths is not natural to me. It’s what this place had done to me.”
She smiled too softly and spoke too indulgently:
“You exaggerate so, honey. They deserve all they get. I wish you wouldn’t look like that. You make me feel creepy.”
I grinned, picked up the glasses, and went out to the kitchen for more gin. When I came back she frowned at me over anxious dark eyes and asked:
“Now what did you bring the ice pick in for?”
“To show you how my mind’s running. A couple of days ago, if I thought about it at all, it was as a good tool to pry off chunks of ice.” I ran a finger down its half-foot of round steel blade to the needle point. “Not a bad thing to pin a man to his clothes with. That’s the way I’m betting, on the level. I can’t even see a mechanical cigar lighter without thinking of filling one with nitroglycerine for somebody you don’t like. There’s a piece of copper wire lying in the gutter in front of your house—thin, soft, and just long enough to go around a neck with two ends to hold on. I had one hell of a time to keep from picking it up and stuffing it in my pocket, just in case—“
“I know it. That’s what I’ve been telling you. I’m going blood-simple.”
“Well, I don’t like it. Put that thing back in the kitchen and sit down and be sensible.”
I obeyed two-thirds of the order.
("Red Harvest," pgs 137-138 in the Library of America’s Complete Novels, Knopf, 1999.)
Well, that’s a pretty good bit, maybe the best in the book. Certainly it provides the only glimmer of self-knowledge or insight in the entire two hundred pages. After this little piece of soul-searching Dinah suggests the Op just needs a good rest—too much excitement. That’s when she provides him with the laudanum to mix with his gin. He conks out. Dinah winds up with the ice-pick in her breast lying next to him the next morning. Go figger. And the whole thing ramps to a conclusion through car chases and fight scenes and shootings. The Op is compromised—he looks damned guilty of Dinah’s murder. But who knows. So it goes.
I was intrigued by Hammett’s suggestion that paranoia, the dark side, can become a habit of mind. Is this, I wonder, what has happened to the entertainment sector in general—books, movies, TV, games—all of it going in the words of Dashiel Hammett “going blood-simple.”