I was reading a FB post yesterday about Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest as it was first published on that very date in 1929 and it made me wonder – and still does, which explains the rambling nature of this post for which I apologize in advance. The main question was: Is such a game-changer of a book still possible today and what would it look like?
Like it or not – and believe me I don’t like it – Hammett’s book was a radical departure from mystery fiction as known at the time. So radical in fact that we can say that the genre was never quite the same again. Like it or not again, everyone writing mysteries today does so in Dash’s shadow. Red Harvest is very much the hardboiled equivalent of Trent’s Last Case, though I doubt Hammett would’ve taken it as a compliment.
Both Trent and Harvest first appeared at a time when the genre appeared to have reached adulthood, was extremely codified and by all appearances bound to remain the same forever. It’s true of today too. Granted, a major difference is that the rules have loosened so much that virtually everything involving criminal acts is now regarded as legit crime fiction but in the end blurbs these days tend to look very much like each other, leading one to believe the genre has run out of ideas if not completely out of steam. Great crime fiction is still being written for sure but only rarely does it challenge the status quo – and maybe it’s because there is no way to challenge it.
Being a game-changer means there is a game to be changed which in turn means breaking the rules – but how can you do it when there are no rules to break anymore? Crime fiction today is a very big tent under which everyone or so is welcome. How do you upset something that already accepts nearly everything? How do you break some new territory when everything that could be done has been done again and again and again?
I’m on record saying that all of the genre’s potentialities were around or in germ in the years before WW1 and I still think so. Those potentialities however were so many and so fruitful that they allowed for one century of constant exploration and broadening, mistaken for innovation. Now however the limits have been reached and it’s time to wonder what lies ahead – and whether there’s anything lying ahead, which is far from certain.
Don’t get me wrong: I am not pulling out a Manchette -like « crime fiction is dead » jeremiad. The genre is far from being dead, at least as far as fecundity and popular appeal go, but never is it really alive. Perhaps one of the unconscious reasons for the current vintage crime boom is nostalgia of a time when the genre was truly vital and inventive despite stricter constrictions.
What is to be done? Frankly I don’t know. This genre needs a paradigm change but it has already tried on all of available paradigms. All we can expect is more of the same – but maybe that’s what people thought too when Red Harvest came out…