Posts Tagged ‘Dashiell Hammett


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


Cleaning out the vault: Dashiell Hammett’s Nightmare Town

Nightmare Town: StoriesNightmare Town: Stories by Dashiell Hammett

Here’s another collection of hard-boiled noir from the Dashiell Hammett vault. You might be wondering, with three great collections of his shorter works already out – The Continental Op, The Big Knockover and The Library of America’s Crime Stories and Other Writings – what makes this one worth checking out? After all, isn’t there a reason why these stories remained unavailable for decades?

Those are reasonable questions. Thankfully, they’re pretty easily answered: Nightmare Town isn’t just one of the biggest collections of his work, it’s one of the better ones.

There’s about a dozen stories featuring his most famous characters: the Op and Sam Spade plus a bunch of loose one-off stories. Some are better than others, but they’re all pretty good and there isn’t really a clunker among the bunch. The stories vary wildly in tone and theme: some are more Westerns than Noirs, others tackle unusual viewpoints (a grifter’s wife, an uneducated prizefighter) and a show Hammett’s more playful side. Meanwhile, the stories with The Op and Spade are all vintage Hammett; it’s a surprise they hadn’t been anthologized before.

These usual takes make for some of the best stories here. Take A Man Named Thin: Hammett adeptly tackles a poet-detective who speaks in full, nearly snobbish sentences (and solves both a crime and an ending to a sonnet in an afternoon). It’s a departure from the rest of his oeuvre that almost seamlessly blends humor and larceny. Or take the title story, apocalyptic in it’s unrelenting violence and destruction.

A nice surprise here is an unfinished early version of The Thin Man. This earlier draft doesn’t feature Nick and Nora Charles and is much darker and bleaker than the finished version. Fans of Hammett’s novel should get a kick out of comparing the two.

On the whole, Nightmare Town is a good collection of stories. It’s not a bad introduction to his shorter pieces – I’d still recommend The Continental Op  for those new to Hammett – but it’s a good reference point for fans. It contains more than a few of his best stories (and a couple not included in the Library of America collection, too). The ideal Hammett comp still hasn’t come out, but this is probably the best of the bunch. Recommended for fans of Hammett, hard-boiled prose and crime fiction.


A few quick book reviews

Part of the reason why this place has been so quiet lately is that I’ve been working a lot – and reading a lot, too. Here’s three quick reviews of some stuff I’ve recently enjoyed – an

The Big Knockover: Selected Stories and Short NovelsThe Big Knockover: Selected Stories and Short Novels by Dashiell Hammett

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Big Knockover is something of an odds-and-ends collection of Hammett’s short fiction. Most of it is filled with stories about The Continental Op, basically the first hard-boiled detective, and as a whole they’re pretty good. Some of the tales – Dead Yellow Women and the title story in particular – stand out and really pack a punch. And like a wise man one said about pizza or Eric Clapton’s guitar playing, even when an Op story isn’t at it’s best, it’s still pretty good. Continue reading ‘A few quick book reviews’