Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett

Red HarvestRed Harvest by Dashiell Hammett

Before he wrote novels, Dashiell Hammett worked as a private investigator for Pinkerton. There’s a story about his last case: someone had hidden stolen goods on a ship headed out of the country and Hammett was supposed to find them. On the night before the ship left, Hammett did one final search of the ship, finding the goods hidden in a smokestack; if he’d waited just hours later, he’d have gotten an all-expenses-paid vacation. But, honest detective he was, he turned over the goods.

More than most of his trade, Hammett earned his cynicism. And his novels brim with it, especially those featuring the Continental Op, his nameless hardboiled detective who’s not above manipulating people or evidence and double-crossing to get a desired result.

Pretty quick, very dark and exceptionally violent, Red Harvest is the first of Dashiell Hammett’s novels. It’s also my favorite. Here the Op goes to Personville – poisonville, as he calls it – and is immediately confronted with a murder. From there, his work spirals out of control and soon he’s taking on an entire crooked-to-the-core town, basically by himself. Figures pop in and out of the narrative: crooked cops, shady union men and a rich guy who may or not own everything, including the citizens themselves.

It’s easy to read this novel straight-up, as a violent murder/mystery. It works like that on one level, but keep in mind that this is a book about corruption and what happens when money gets in the way of things. His Personville has literally been poisoned by wealth, with everyone crooked and only in it for themselves. Hammett’s saying some interesting stuff about society below the surface here and it’s worth reading between the lines a bit to listen to it. It’s not hard to see some of the same problems in today’s society, when mega-zillionaires own so much and fight to keep things that way.

Also remember that with this, Hammett was basically creating a genre as he went along. He more or less invented this genre, a style of writing that inspired everyone from Raymond Chandler to Bill Watterson. In a famous essay in The Atlantic, Chandler wrote how Hammett took murder out of the drawing-room and dropped it into the alley; he transplanted a stately English genre (think Sherlock and his refined tastes) and Americanized it, making it gritty, pulpy and ultimately, closer to you and I. Red Harvest is an early stab at it: it’s rougher, darker and more violent than anything Chandler wrote, but don’t let that distract you: it’s as good as anything either of them ever wrote.

Rating: 9/10. A roller coaster of a read, a book that keeps amping up the tension between wild jags of action. It’s about as fun a read as anything Hammett ever wrote and as cynical as anything in detective literature. Recommended.

Related: Cleaning Out the Vault: Dashiell Hammett’s Nightmare Town

Related: Raymond Chandler and Hollywood: The Little Sister




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