Dashiell Hammett: Red Harvest

Red_Harvest‘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.

Red Harvest
Dashiell Hammett
First published in Black Mask, in book form 1929 by Alfred A. Knopf
This edition, 2003, Orion Books
ISBN: 9780752852614
Pages: 215
Source: Abebooks
Final destination: A keeper

About pastoffences

Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
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10 Responses to Dashiell Hammett: Red Harvest

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    I love the Continental Op – he’s so unlikely in many ways – but I only read this particular book fairly recently and my! it’s dark! I hadn’t expected it to be quite so violent and corrupt, but Hammett’s writing is just so good – amazing how he could turn out this and then something like “The Thin Man”!


  2. Brad says:

    I love, love, LOVE this book! If I had the talent, I wanted to turn it into a play or even a musical on the scale of LES MIZ! All of that sounds silly, I know, but the over-the-top aspects of this – plus the great amount of fair-play-ish mystery involved – make this an incredibly fun and scary ride! I’m glad you reviewed it, Rich!


  3. I’m a big admirerer of this one – glad you stuck with it this time Rich 🙂


  4. tracybham says:

    With all these commendations I shall have to read this book. At 215 pages, I should be able to handle it, even if it is dark.


  5. Roger says:

    It’s got an interesting cinematic history: Kurosawa turned it into a samurai film as Yojimbo; Leone turned that into A Fistful of Dollars; Walter Hill made that into Last Man Standing, set in about the same time and place as Hammett’s original, but none of them – nor the Coen Brothers in Miller’s Crossing – acknowledged where they got the story.

    Liked by 1 person

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