Finding Morality in Dashiell Hammett

How interesting it would have been to have read The Maltese Falcon and Red Harvest as they were originally published, as serialized installments within the pages of Black Mask magazine. The idea of having to wait an entire month to find out the outcome of the latest cliffhanger sounds like a reader’s most exquisite form of torture. As it happens, I didn’t have to wait as I flew through these works in record time. My intention was to only read Falcon, but I enjoyed it so much that I decided to read another. Having now read two novels by both Hammett and Chandler, I can see why they will forever be considered the top authors of hard-boiled detective fiction. While researching some of Hammett’s background, I came across this interesting observation from James Ellroy:

Chandler wrote the kind of guy he wanted to be, Hammett wrote the kind of guy he was afraid he was.

I thought this quote was rather insightful, and so it will be the epicenter of my thoughts on both of these novels. While plot is important to any work of fiction, I found that it was the interactions between the characters that held my interest. The outcome of the story became secondary to my need to understand these two protagonists, Sam Spade and the unnamed Continental Op. Hammett seamlessly pulls you into a world where lies and deceit abound, nobody is trustworthy, and led by a protagonist who is the most untrustworthy of all.

Red Harvest (1929) and The Maltese Falcon (1930) solidified Dashiell Hammett as one of America’s greatest writers of crime fiction. Photo Credit: Natalie Getter

Hammett’s writing technique for The Maltese Falcon moves seamlessly. Written in omnipresent third-person, we are devoid of delving into Sam Spade’s inner thoughts. Each sentence focuses on either on outside physical description or moving the action forward. Here is our first introduction to him:

Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down—from high flat temples—in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.

The Maltese Falcon moves as a piece of fiction composed in the style of Hemingway. Hammett strips down the novel to only description and dialogue. Every sentence works to move the story forward. At no point in the narrative do we actually enter a character’s conscious thought or see through their eyes. It is left to the reader to discern what is actual truth. 

While this novel is quite complex when factoring in its various characters and their unseen connections and motives, the plot itself is rather simple. Detective Sam Spade is recruited by femme fatale Brigid O’Shaughnessy to help her retrieve the infamous bird of the title, a work of art that once belonged to a Templar-esque order of former Crusaders and is now being hunted around the world by a rivalrous group of thieves. Three murders, including his partner, and a lot of trouble with the police later, Spade enters into his own standoff with the criminals over the elusive treasure. Hammett manages to make the characters memorable, taking it to the farthest border of camp possible (one of the bad guys is an overweight man named Gutman for crying out loud) without falling into the ridiculous. In addition to the eye candy villainess and overweight crime lord, we also have the prissy and quite incompetent Joel Cairo. Readers would do well to write down some information about each of these characters, as it proves almost impossible to keep up with all of the lies and backstabbings that occur. Spade’s interactions with them serve as the true driving force of this novel, with the detective proving to be the most duplicitous out of all of them. 

The moral compass to be found in this story is Effie Perine, Spade’s secretary and the only decent character to be found within these pages. This conversation with Spade in the book’s final pages demonstrates the the hero we’ve been following is the most corrupt of all and is truly and permanently damned: 

[Effie’s] voice was queer as the expression on her face. “You did that, Sam, to her?”

He nodded. “Your Sam’s a detective.” He looked sharply at her. He put his arm around her waist, his hand on her hip. “She did kill Miles, angel,” he said gently, “offhand, like that.” He snapped the fingers of his other hand.

She escaped from his arm as if it had hurt her. “Don’t, please, don’t touch me,” she said brokenly. “I know—I know you’re right. You’re right. But don’t touch me now—not now.”

Spade’s face became pale as his collar.

Although written first, Red Harvest marks my second foray into Hammett. Written in first-person this time, the author still creates a barrier between character and reader by making our hero unnamed, referred to only as the “Continental Op” and giving no backstory into his origins. The novel opens with our hero travelling to a town called Personville to meet with a client. Due to its high level of corruption among their most powerful, the town has earned the nickname “Poisonville.” Upon arriving, the Op discovers his client has been murdered. Everyone he encounters, whether businessmen, politicians, or even the police chief, is corrupt. Thus, the Op makes it his personal mission to “clean up” Poisonville once and for all. 

As you can imagine from the book’s title, there are a lot of deaths. A lot. By the time it’s over, nearly two dozen characters are dead. The most compelling facet of his actions is that the Op never kills anyone directly; rather, he plays on their own insecurities and mistrust to turn these criminals against each other. The Op is quite the master strategist, a devil in disguise who keeps his methods a secret from his colleagues and superiors. 

Years ago, while working in a video store, I watched a Western called High Plains Drifter. Clint Eastwood plays a man with no name and a questionable past hired to dispatch some outlaws that have taken over a town. It’s a plot that has been played in many Westerns, and it’s easy to see how Hammett’s storytelling in Red Harvest was influential to the development of these movies. The writing is certainly cinematic and once again focused on action and description only. Early in the novel, the Op describes an early morning scene as follows:

I noticed that two automatic pistols hung on nails over the top of the door through which I had come. They would be handy if any of the house’s occupants opened the door, found an enemy with a gun there, and were told to put up their hands.

The action happens at such a rapid-fire pace that it can be difficult keeping up with events. I found myself writing notes and having to go back and reread a section. I would, however, caution about taking my approach. The alliances shift at such a breakneck speed, that it’s better just to enjoy the ride as a really good piece of cinema. 

As with the devil Sam Spade, we are left feeling uneasy as to how well we can trust the Op. During a part where he is accused of murder, I found myself questioning where he was actually guilty or not. The corruption that saturates Poisonville is so high that we see the Op having to become a bigger monster in order to stop the ones he has been dispatched to eliminate. 

With so much deception in both of these novels, it begs the question of where can one find the morality? There is an interesting section smack in the middle of Falcon that almost seemed out of place to the rest of the flowing narrative. While sitting in his apartment, Spade tells Brigid a story about a former case he worked. Hired to find a missing man, Spade manages to track him down to discover he was alive and well. The man recounts to Spade an event that was a major turning point in his life, where he was walking down the street one day, and some building scaffolding missed him by mere inches. Faced with his own mortality, the man abandoned his life and started a new one, saying he felt like his life was out-of-sync and needed to put it right. Occupying only a couple of pages in the book, Spade’s story has no place with the narrative proper. I just wondered if maybe this case had a longstanding impact on Spade, perhaps Hammett himself. Perhaps satan wanted out of hell after all?

“But that’s the part of it I always liked. He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling.”-The Maltese Falcon

 

Have you read any of these books? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below. 

 

Classics Club Spin: Third Time’s the Charm (Updated)

I’ve been in a bit of a blogging slump lately due to staying busy on other projects. Hopefully, I’ll get some reviews posted in the next couple of weeks. But first things first. It’s time for another spin for Classics Club. I didn’t finish my books for the previous two spins, so hopefully this is the one where I get back on track. The idea is to select 20 random books from your Classics Club List and post them before Sunday, October 17. Then, a number will be chosen which reveals the title that must be read by Sunday, December 12. Here we go!

Update 10/17/21: Yay! It’s a classic Stephen King. Vampires for Halloween!!!!

  1. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  2. Something Wicked this Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
  3. Possession by A.S. Byatt
  4. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
  5. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  6. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  7. For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
  8. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
  9. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
  10. Washington Square by Henry James
  11. The Metamorphosis and Other Stories by Franz Kafka
  12. Salem’s Lot by Stephen King
  13. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez
  14. Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
  15. The Enchanted Castle by Edith Nesbit
  16. 1984 by George Orwell
  17. Animal Farm by George Orwell
  18. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  19. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
  20. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

As always, I’ll update this post with the chosen number. Good luck to everyone participating!

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Her Dark Materials

Like moths to a flame, human beings are attracted to dark and unsettling stories. For centuries, the macabre has been a favorite form of escapism. The original folk and fairy tales of The Brothers Grimm were full of horrific imagery and just as disturbing as many of today’s horror movies. This fascination with the darkness is not lost on English writer A.S. Byatt, as she points out in her story “Raw Material” about an adult writing class whose students are drawn to “the world of domestic violence, torture, and shock-horror.” Whether it’s a matter of making sense of our own darkness or as an escape from our own lives, time and time again we turn to this type of fiction. My first experience with A.S. Byatt was another fabulous collection, The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye: Five Fairy Stories, which seamlessly blended magical elements with the everyday world. Little Black Book of Stories contains five tales, which combine the ordinary with the absurd. While I didn’t love all the stories equally, I will say that each little tale of terror stayed with me for a few days after I finished the book. 

Little Black Book of Stories (2003) by A.S. Byatt will definitely leave you feeling unsettled; Photo Credit: Natalie Getter

The opening story for this collection is an intriguing story about the distorted edges of reality, called “The Thing in the Forest.” The setting is England during World War II, when children were evacuated from London. Two girls named Penny and Primrose become best friends and decide to keep each other safe. Once they’ve arrived at the estate serving as a safehouse, the girls decide to explore the surrounding forest. It’s there that they encounter, or possibly imagine, a disgusting monster. The creature can be be described as a nightmare worm, composed of miscellaneous rotting debris. Though the children come to no harm and they never speak of it again, the discovery of this bizarre being affects them throughout their adult lives. The story quickly moves forward in time as each girl deals with their past traumas in extremely different ways. Penny and Primrose never think about each other again, until one day as adults they return to that dark forest. 

“They remembered the thing they had seen in the forest in the way you remember those very few dreams – almost all nightmares – which have the quality of life itself, not of phantasm, or shifting provisional scene-set. (Though what are dreams if not life itself?) In the memory, as in such a dream, they felt, I cannot get out, this is a real thing in a real place.”

This story intrigued me for several reasons. As a therapist, I loved the juxtaposition of the uncanny with reality. Byatt immediately establishes the trauma that the girls are experiencing in their violent separations from their families due to the war. They’ve been forced to grow up too soon. This monster in the woods is the perfect representation of what these children are giving up on that fateful day. One of Byatt’s strengths is her incredible use of vocabulary, which she uses here to great effect in describing the creature. I felt this strong wave of disgust as I could practically feel it through all five of my senses. This clever use of wordplay works quite well in a later story about a woman who is slowly transforming into a stone statue. 

It seems the true horror of this story is not the experience with the monster itself, but how it affects both girls as they become adults. Penny and Primrose handle their traumatic experiences in completely different ways. However, both girls become disconnected to interpersonal relationships. That isn’t to say they don’t have lives, it just seems like the only meaningful connection they’ve ever had is with each other. Both became stuck, and like trauma, they were not consciously aware of being stuck. Penny and Primrose meet later as adults, and this chance encounter triggers their memories of the horrific experience, motivating each one to face the creature in the forest once more. At first, I didn’t realize this as I was reading. After finishing the book as a whole, I see now that Byatt was connecting these tales to a theme of how we respond to traumatic experiences. 

The second story, Body Art, was my favorite of this collection. It follows an emotionally distant doctor and his relationship with a young artist who has been scarred, both physically and figuratively, by a previous abortion. The girl is silent about her past and lives in a homemade cave in a storage room at the hospital. The doctor feels sympathy for her and allows her to temporarily stay at his home. Inexplicably, the two have an affair to which she becomes pregnant. Byatt makes use of the the theme of art to tell a larger story regarding the hot topic of abortion. As a male reader, I had some difficulty with this story, as it becomes a power struggle between the future parents on the best decision to make with regards to keeping the baby. As all the stories of this collection, it ends with lingering questions about the future. I suppose one could say that its ending mirrors the abortion debate, as there are not always easy answers. 

Byatt’s works are categorized as fantasy, but I believe this is often the problem today with genre-labeling. This book, along with so many others, crosses and combines so many other genres from magical realism, to horror, to domestic drama. For me, the first two stories beautifully intertwined so many elements. “Raw Material” was interesting from a writer’s perspective, as it explored whether or not the act of writing can be a form of therapy. Of course, my answer is a resounding yes! However, this story didn’t become interesting to me until the last few pages with images that made me want to scream in terror. Byatt once again shows us that supernatural monsters cannot compare to true-to-life horror. 

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Like the opening story, “The Stone Woman” and “The Pink Ribbon” have a blatantly mythic, supernatural element. While I didn’t care for “The Stone Woman,” I did appreciate the geology and Icelandic mythology elements. “The Pink Ribbon” is about a man haunted by a memory of his wife, who now has Alzheimer’s. As someone who has experienced a loved one losing her mental capacity, I will say this one evoked a lot of emotion. While I enjoyed some of the stories more than others, the five tales came together to form a deep psychological view of the terrors that can be found within the mundane. 

“I think there are things that are real-more real than we are-but mostly, we don’t cross their paths, or they don’t cross ours. Maybe at very bad times we get into their world, or notice what they are doing in ours.”-The Thing in the Forest

 

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below.

Jane Austen: More Than a Writer of “Silly Romances”

Anyone who believes that Jane Austen was merely a writer of silly love stories should take a closer look at Persuasion, her final completed novel. In her poignant memoir Austen Years, Rachel Cohen talks often of this novel and how its themes of loss and inner healing helped her come to terms with her own grieving process. I was drawn to a passage in which by comparing Austen’s novels to planetary bodies, Persuasion “is something like an asteroid that moves repeatedly among the different spheres.” Just like an asteroid or comet, this book has appeared at different intervals throughout my life. Much like Cohen, I first discovered it during a difficult period of loss within my family. My second read of it would become one of the earliest posts on this blog. Years later, Persuasion would become my first Folio edition (thanks Roof Beam Reader). It seems somewhat ironic that the two Austen novels that are most important to me represent two very different phases of life. While Northanger Abbey focuses on the follies of youth, “the romance of illusions,” as Conrad once eloquently stated, Persuasion is a work about growing up and coming to terms with some of life’s bitter truths. While the novel still contains her trademark humor and wit, this is the author at her most somber in dealing with the many facets of grief. I firmly believe that Jane Austen is one of the most re-readable authors that ever existed. Having followed the story of Anne Elliot for the third time, I was so amazed at how many little details I missed during the first two journeys. While Persuasion may not always be viewed as her greatest novel, it is a work that shows Austen at her most mature, and to me, perhaps her most important contribution.

My beautiful Folio of Persuasion (1818) by Jane Austen, Photo Credit: Natalie Getter

Austen has always succeeded in giving her readers a clear impression of her heroines, Anne Elliot being no exception as demonstrated here:

“…with an elegance of mind and sweetness of character, which must have placed her high with any people of real understanding, was nobody with either father or sister: her word had no weight; her convenience was always to give way;-she was only Anne.”

With this passage, Austen provides insight to not only Anne’s character, but to her family as well. Her father and older sister are completely self-obsessed and treat Anne as a hindrance rather than as an equal. At the age of nineteen, Anne accepted a proposal of marriage from naval officer Frederick Wentworth. On the influence of her family as well as a dear family friend, Lady Russell, she ends the relationship, as Wentworth is lacking those important qualities of status and wealth. Embittered by the rejection, he returns to life at sea where he quickly moves up the ranks and amasses quite the fortune. Now at an age where she is considered a spinster, Anne has become a broken woman. Lacking in friends and essentially written off by her family, she is arguably a more pathetic heroine than her predecessor Fanny Price.

Due to the family’s declining financial situation, the Elliots must rent out their home to an Admiral Croft and his wife while first spending some time visiting Anne’s sister Mary (married to Charles Musgrove) and then visiting Bath. These events coincide with the end of the Napoleonic War, when many soldiers return back to England, bringing a Captain Frederick Wentworth into Anne’s circle of friends. As it turns out, Anne’s former love is Lady Croft’s brother! Coincidences are quite frequent and fun in nineteenth-century literature. Now significantly wealthier and just as handsome, Wentworth re-enters England and Anne’s world triggering regret and pain as she re-examines her unfortunate decision so many years before. Dwelling on what could have been rather than the person she could become, Anne’s journey is Austen at her more philosophical.

While Persuasion is a love story at its essence, it’s quite a different setup from the Austen works that proceeded it. Rather than move towards the love story, we are told from the start how it failed. Despite being a brilliant young woman, Anne Elliot is a woman without a voice. She is unfairly dismissed by her family due to her status as single and her age. Anne lacks self-confidence, as she feels her beauty has faded. Often suffering in silence, her mistake in rejecting Wentworth acts as a torment, fueling her own negative self-image. Something happens throughout the novel that is quite extraordinary. We see Anne grow in confidence and find her voice again, culminating in a brilliant scene late in the book. For me, Persuasion is so important because, at its core, this is a novel about coming to terms with your past while learning to love yourself again.

Though Austen writes in third person, the free-indirect discourse effortlessly weaves Anne’s thoughts into the narration so we are always privy to her thoughts. For example, in the scene when Mary tells her that Wentworth has found her much altered since their last meeting, the narration weaves Anne’s point of view into what would traditionally be an objective point of view: ‘So altered that she should not have known her again!’ These were words which could not but dwell with her. Yet she soon began to rejoice that she had heard them. They were of sobering tendency; they allayed agitation; they composed and consequently must make her happier.” Of course, Anne is not happier, the word “must” flagging her inner thoughts and attempts to believe her own lies. By this late point in her career, Austen had perfected a style bordering on the postmodern.

Beautiful Illustrations From a New Edition of Austen's “Persuasion”
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Persuasion not only serves as title but also the theme of the book. I actually lost track of the number of times a variation of the word “persuasion” itself is actually used. There is a double act occurring in the work with Anne being persuaded not to marry Frederick when she was nineteen, and later being persuaded to marry her cousin Elliot. Both acts were wrongful, and reminds us of the importance of having an independent mind and spirit. Throughout the novel, Anne’s strengths begin to emerge to the forefront, such as caring for her ill nephew and later possessing a calm mind during Louisa Musgrove’s tragic fall. These small events point to the larger picture of Anne’s kindness and resourcefulness.

Austen often gets criticized for never tackling larger issues. The truth is that she does through the behaviors of her characters. Anne’s sadness is indicative of the horrors of Austen’s time, such as the Napoleonic War, the death of loved ones, and illness. While these topics are not the novel’s primary focus, their presence is there nonetheless, creating this unsettling feeling, serving to remind the reader that despite the social cues and conventions that make up Victorian life, the basic facts of life still stand. One of my favorite friendships of the novel is between Anne and Commander Benwick, whose fiancé is now deceased. Much like Anne, he has become melancholy, turning to poetry for inspiration. Anne briefly compares whose loss was worse. While Benwick can never be reunited with his lost love, is Anne’s suffering more pronounced? Austen keeps her readers guessing, one moment having us question deep issues, and another laughing at the ditzy Louisa Musgrove or Anne’s sister Mary with her hypochondriac tendencies. Persuasion brings together all elements of human life. It’s so much more than a “silly romance.”

“A submissive spirit might be patient, a strong understanding would supply resolution, but here was something more; here was that elasticity of mind, that disposition to be comforted, that power of turning readily from evil to good, and of finding employment which carried her out of herself, which was from Nature alone.”

One of my favorite passages of this book is surprisingly not centered on the protagonist, or even a major character. Mrs. Smith is a widow who has suffered ill health, leaving her disabled, along with financial difficulties since the death of her husband. If any character has a right to be morose, it is her. Austen describes Mrs. Smith as a person who had “lived very much in the world,” meaning she has experienced the multiple traumas the world can offer, yet she is determined to earn a living in this society and think positively. It was so amazing to me that the most inspirational character in the novel is the one that received the least amount of page time. 

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I won’t spoil the ending……too much. Anne’s speech at the end (in addition to a well-written letter) bring events to a satisfying conclusion. As Anne looks upon the other characters in the final chapter, we see how far she has come. She recognizes the person she truly is, rather than who she used to be. Rather than mourn her decision of eight years ago, she now views it in a positive light, as she needed time to grow and mature. The same can be said of her creator as well. It’s ironic that Jane Austen’s final completed novel would be one that tackled the subjects of grief and loss. Persuasion is a crowning jewel that emphasizes the author’s growth and mature writing style. 

“…but when pain is over, the remembrance of it becomes a pleasure.”

 

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below.

The Unwitting Covid Allegory of ‘The Girl in Red’

I love modern adaptations of fairy tales. I also love dystopian fiction. So it was a no-brainer that I would want to read The Girl in Red, a gritty retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood story. Author Christina Henry, who has also written alternative versions of classics such as Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland, paints a rather bleak yet creative spin on the heroine who is diligently trying to reach the safety of her grandmother’s house. While I was enthralled by this violent and horrific version of the Red Riding Hood story, I was not prepared for the disturbing scenes involving a virus that effectively wiped out three-fourths of humanity, a sickness whose early symptoms are exactly like the pandemic to which our world currently faces. Clearly this was not the author’s intentions, as this book was published in 2019. The result for me was a disturbing yet compelling read.

The Girl In Red (2019) by Christina Henry, Photo Credit: Natalie Getter

For the past year and a half, we have collectively suffered the wrath of Covid-19. While the situation has improved from the shutdown that shook this country to its foundations, we still live in fear for the future. Variants of the virus continue to spread at a rapid rate, and our country is more divided than ever in regards to issues such as the vaccine, masks, and how our government is handling the crisis. The Girl in Red reflects those nightmares about the future of Covid, a manifestation of the “worst-case scenario.”

Rather than describe our protagonist, I’ll leave it to the author who nails it with this opening paragraph that tells you almost everything you need to know:

“The fellow across the fire gave Red the once-over, from the wild corkscrews of her hair peeking out from under her red hood to the small hand axe that rested on the ground beside her. His eyes darted from the dried blood on the blade-just a shadow in the firelight-to the backpack of supplies next to it and back to her face, which she made as bland as rice pudding.”

So immediately we start the story off alone in the wood who is definitely more than capable of taking care of herself. Christened “Cordelia” by her academic parents due to her mother’s love of Shakespeare, our protagonist adopts the name “Red” as a better reflection of her identity. Rather than the story of a little girl, the author has transformed the protagonist into a 20-year-old biracial and bisexual adult who is quite the badass. Appearances can be deceiving as this young lady also has a prosthetic leg, a result from getting hit by a car when she was a child. While she is offended easily, Red often thinks of herself as nothing more than a “cripple” when she struggles with a task. We learn immediately just how capable Red is when she has to use her axe on a dangerous man who tries to attack her. I’ll let you discover this passage on your own, but it’s definitely violence that would be at home in a Tarantino film. Following this rather graphic scene, the story flashes back to Red and her family at the beginning of the pandemic.

The sickness that has hit the world begins as a mild cough but it quickly develops into a frequently bloody and graphic death, not unlike the virus from Stephen King’s The Stand. The virus moves quickly from incubation to death, and soon three-fourths of the world’s population is eradicated. Soon, looting and pillaging becomes commonplace as it becomes every man for himself. Firearms become more prevalent as human decency quickly devolves.

Despite this being a difficult read, it was easy to fall and get lost in the prose. Atmospheric and emotive, I enjoyed every moment of it. Red’s character comes out quite strong from the beginning, considering she has a lot to prove. Henry establishes Red’s identity early in the story. She can be a bit brassy, but I was always rooting for her. At first, I was surprised by how she already seemed so desensitized to the violence and gore surrounding her. As the story flashes back and forth in time, it became easier for me to see how she became such a badass warrior. During the outbreak, Red is a college student living with her parents and older brother Adam. There is a lot of cynicism between the siblings, as they each have different opinions of the best actions to take during the apocalypse. The events that happen to Red’s family will break your heart.

Just like the original story, the grandmother’s house is viewed as a place of safety:

“It never occurred to Red that Grandma wouldn’t be there when they arrived. Even though hundreds, maybe thousands, of people were dying every day, it seemed impossible to contemplate Grandma dying from the thing that was killing everyone.

Grandmas didn’t die from stuff like that. Grandmas went on and on, enduring year after year, shriveled and worn but somehow ageless. Grandmas outlived grandfathers and after they grieved they just rolled up their sleeves and got on with it. Grandmas knew how to do everything (except maybe with their smartphones–they would need a little help there but in this new world smartphones were just garbage anyway, so that meant grandmas were now without flaw) and get through any crisis. So of course Grandma would be there at the end.”

Red’s determination to make it to her Grandma’s house always kept the story moving with perfect pacing. Henry did a great job of the inclusion of the horror factor, with Red discovering an “entity” worse than the virus itself. While not every question in this book is answered, one satisfactory resolution is the mystery of what happened to Red’s brother Adam. While he starts the journey to Grandma’s house with her, Red is clearly alone when we are first introduced to her. The flashbacks culminate to the answer of his fate, which is nothing short of heartbreaking. The author does well with building tension as she alternates the two timelines seamlessly.

Christina Henry, Photo from an article by Sierra Vittorio Asselin

During my reading, I was amazed by the parallels between Red’s apocalyptic world and our own. Looking past the similarities between Covid and the initial symptoms of this fictional virus, there are also several aspects regarding the very divided opinions. For the safety of the survivors, the government has established “quarantine camps” to slow the spread of the virus. Red, who mistrusts the government as well as the military, is quite outspoken against enforced quarantine. Her brother Adam, on the other hand, strongly supports a quarantine camp over the dangerous trek to their grandmother’s house. Red believes masks are helpful against catching the virus. In one particularly painful scene of her family trying to get provisions from one of the cities, it’s clear that not everyone believes the masks are helpful. I’ve seen firsthand how differing opinions, sometimes within the same family, lead to severe divisions. Later, Red and Adam are discovered by a military group who want to test their blood to make sure they don’t have the virus. Red refuses, as she believes the military are not being honest and implanting something in them. Never has our nation been more divided in opinion than on the Covid vaccine. Various militia groups have risen up, patrolling and pillaging various sectors for themselves. Red believes that human beings are “always reduced to their least human denominators when things went bad.” While she does find an eventual ally within the military, her mistrust echoes how many feel towards our own government.

“There are a lot of monsters out there, and all of them look like humans.”

Now, the Little Red Riding Hood story is nothing without the Big Bad Wolf. Rather than one antagonist, the sad reality for Red is that virtually everyone she encounters is a broken and savage individual. She eventually finds others that are good and decent people, but they pale in page time compared to the majority of people Red encounters.

For readers who love to have everything resolved neatly by the last page, I’ve got some bad news for you. We never discover the true origins of the virus and are left with speculations regarding the greater threat Red discovers on her journey. Normally, I would be bothered by not getting all the answers. However, it works here, particularly when we view the story as an allegory to our current state of affairs. I felt the main issues were addressed, specifically Red coming to terms with her guilt about her brother. The Girl in Red is a compelling read that shows the worst of humanity, but also some of the its best.

“She was just a woman trying not to get killed in a world that didn’t look anything like the one she’s grown up in, the one that had been perfectly sane and normal and boring until three months ago.”

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below.