‘Your fat chief of police tried to assassinate me last night. I don’t like that. I’m just mean enough to want to ruin him for it. Now I’m going to have my fun. I’ve got ten thousand dollars of your money to play with. I’m going to use it opening Poisonville up from Adam’s apple to ankles. I’ll see you get my reports as regularly as possible. I hope you enjoy them.’
Dashiell Hammett’s tough PI (known to readers only as the Continental Op) has been summoned to Personville – Poisonville to its friends – by Donald Willsson, crusading publisher of the local paper. He arrives too late to save Willsson from being murdered but Willsson’s wealthy father Elihu retains him to find out who did it.
Personville is ‘an ugly city of forty thousand people, set in an ugly notch between two ugly mountains that had been all dirtied up by mining’ and is as corrupt as it is dirty. The town’s foremost industrialist, Elihu Willsson (the czar of Poisonville), built the city ‘brick by brick with his own hands and he was going to keep it or wipe it off the side of the hill’. In his desperation to keep out organised labor he invited in organised crime and they decided to stay. The police are slovenly, on the take, and in the pockets of the town’s gangsters. They cross the line when they try to kill the Op.
Having resolved to clean up Poisonville whether his client likes it or not, the Op proceeds by stirring up all the trouble he can and seeing what happens next.
‘So that’s the way you scientific detectives work. My God! for a fat, middle-aged, hard-boiled, pig-headed guy, you’ve got the vaguest easy of doing things I ever heard of.’
‘ Plans are all right sometimes,’ I said. ‘And sometimes just stirring things up is all right – if you’re tough enough to survive…’
It seems to work, and the Op is just tough enough to survive a town in all the chaos of full-on gang warfare.
He’s an interesting character: fat, middle-aged, hard-boiled, pig-headed. He tries to keep regular hours and not miss his mealtimes, but he drinks like a fish and he’s not afraid to try a bit of laudanum. He doesn’t have much use for anybody and happily sells people down the river – or not – when it meets his objective of blowing the town apart. He’s not afraid to use violence to achieve his aims, but to his horror he actually begins to look forward to it:
‘This damned burg’s getting me. If I don’t get away soon I’ll be going blood-simple like the natives.’
I’ve tried to read Red Harvest a couple of times previously but given up, but this time I stuck with it and I’m glad I did. It’s eye-openingly violent, unremitting in its vision of corruption, and apparently based on Hammett’s own experiences. The cast of characters displays Hammett’s wonderful gift for names – Elihu Willsson, Yakima Shorty, Reno Starkey, Chief Noonan, Pete the Finn, Whisper Thaler, Dinah Brand. The fight scenes are gritty (and indeed almost Tarantino-esque in their sweep). The Op is a keen observer of human foibles, with a black sense of humour and a truly hard-boiled turn of phrase. Great stuff.
First published in Black Mask, in book form 1929 by Alfred A. Knopf
This edition, 2003, Orion Books
Final destination: A keeper