In the early days of this blog, to indicate my tastes, I brazenly avowed that certain authors were unlikely ever to be reviewed here; bang in the middle of that list, fresh from disappointments with his short fiction, was Dashiell Hammett. Even in the throes of castigation, however, I acknowledged the “dense and amazing” plotting of his debut novel Red Harvest (1929), which had a startling effect on this young man when finding my feet in the genre in the early 2000s. And then Nick Fuller’s recent review of that book — linked below — did to its reputation what the Continental Op does to Personville herein, and my interest in revisiting it was well and truly piqued.
Hammett’s protagonist — he’s not really a hero, is he? — is an operative of the Continental Detective Agency, summoned to Personville by Donald Willsson for reasons never discovered since Willsson is dead by page 4 without ever appearing in the narrative. Willsson’s father, Elihu Willsson, then hires the Op to find out who killed his son and, since a lot of people seem to want that question to remain unanswered, the Op is soon veering off-course from his client’s request and into a one-man campaign to clean up the crime-ravaged streets of “Poisonville”.
“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 that you get my reports as regularly as possible. I hope you enjoy them.”
The book has a lot of flaws, but also much to its credit. In reality this is not quite a novel, more a series of overlapping vignettes designed to give a collage-like, piecemeal sense of the various levels of corruption that riddle the town: the lust for violence and money, yes, but also just plain lust itself, and the jealousy that rises to the top when others possess that which we desire. Hammett’s short plots overlay in a fashion that enables surprise antagonists to be prised from some surprisingly tight plotting and subtle clewing (the dying message wouldn’t fool anyone in a more mannered novel of detection but ain’t half bad here, and some of the physical evidence is superb), and the language oscillates between the sublime (“Polly De Voto is a good scout and anything she sells you is good, except maybe the Bourbon. That always tastes a little bit like it had been drained off a corpse.”) and the frankly ludicrous (“A bullet kissed a hole in the door-frame close to my noodle.”) in a way that is quite wildly entertaining.
The Op, too, is an interesting study: enjoyably cynical (“He made me promise to call on him the first chance I got, told me the Personville police department was at my disposal, gave me to understand that if anything happened to me his whole life would be ruined…”) and crashing through the organised criminal overworld in a way that leaves even the Poisonville toughs a little taken aback (“There’s no sense in a man picking out the worst name he can find for everything…” one of the opines at one point) while hinting that the impression that the front he’s putting up is just a front and might not be sustainable if the job lasts much longer:
I went back to my hotel and got into a tub of cold water. It braced me a lot, and I needed bracing. At forty I could get along on gin as a substitute for sleep, but not comfortably.
And then…well, then the wheels come off. For all that the Op reflects after a while that he’s going “blood simple” and getting drawn into the violence of Personville, it distinctly feels as if he’s enjoying himself — he admits early on that it’s a personal vendetta because he doesn’t like being shot at, and one of his earliest actions is to shoot in cold blood a man he’d been chatting with only moments before. “Anybody that brings any ethics to Poisonville is going to get them all rusty” he says, having had a hand in condemning to death at least one man and seeing him murdered in public without so much as an internal flicker of regret, calling it “more satisfying” to kill these people off than to try and reason them out of their feuds. So many people die — a lot of them off page — without anything like a flash of interest or curiosity on the Op’s part. It’s not merely tough, it’s inhuman.
In fact, there doesn’t seem to be a genuine emotion in the entire book. Women cry, but while doing so “stud[y] my face, apparently trying to learn how I took the story”, men stare each other down “for nearly three minutes” (three minutes!!), the Op wakes up in the middle of a frame for murdering someone he has spent a lot of time with and gets up and leaves without a moment of repulsion or fear or…anything. People die, people die, people die, and no-one cares. “Everybody’s killing everybody. When’s it going to end?” someone asks late on, and the exhaustion behind it seems to be more from boredom at the repetition than at the horror of what all this violence means. For all Raymond Chandler’s oft-quoted praise of Hammett, a lot of corpses are provided here simply for the purpose of providing a corpse.
“I understand everything about it except what you have done and why, and what you’re trying to do and how.”
The grim, endless slaughter is all the odder for being set against a background of cartoonish character’s straight from Warren Beatty’s version of Dick Tracy (1990) — the two women who feature are beautiful, and all the men are physical freaks with swollen or misshapen jaws, bizarre facial features, overlong arms and legs, and disease-ridden countenances that distinguish them just long enough for someone to shoot them. Maybe this is entertainment, and I stand by the density of the plotting as something that few others would ever match, but there’s not a lick of realism to be found anywhere. And don’t try telling me that it must be realistic because Hammett was a P.I. for Pinkerton’s before he was an author — if ever a novel reeked of male insecurity embellishing the difficulty and peril associated with their day job it’s this one.
Twenty years later, in Nothing More Than Murder (1949), Jim Thompson would take Hammett’s blueprint and turn it into something genuinely heart-breaking and savage and terrifying because he put actual people with actual concerns at the heart of his similarly tough world-view. In that regard, Red Harvest is a classic because of all the imitators who flocked in to occasionally improve on what Hammett showed them how to do. As a novel in its own right, however, it is unpleasantly unrepentant, glorying in a dismissal of human life in a manner that is tawdry in the worst incarnation of its Pulpish roots. The fascination of disbelief is strong here, and not something I’m keen to revisit any time soon.
Nick @ The Grandest Game in the World: Admirers praise Red Harvest for its depiction of corruption and violence, for its realism, its atrocity, and its cynicism, as though these are praiseworthy. There is nothing admirable in Red Harvest; it is a barbarous bloodbath, its worldview nihilistic and anti-democratic. Civilisation is rotten, and law and order are corrupt. The bosses control the courts, the police chief uses the cops as his private army, and most of the cops can be bought. The hero is the vigilante, even tougher and more murderous than the cops and the mobsters. The solution to violent crime is to be even more violent.
Mike @ Only Detect: Red Harvest originally appeared as a four-part serial in Black Mask magazine, and several times—at what would have been a climactic moment in one of those four segments—the Op manages to pull a trick rabbit out of his snap-brim hat. In each case, the guilty party has committed murder “for a reason,” but that reason isn’t what readers are inclined to expect. With sleight-of-hand plotting of that sort, Hammett pays homage to the very tradition of classic detection that he aims to transcend. What results is partly a tale of (new) Old West derring-do, partly a clue-laden puzzle story, and partly a study in modern existential sensibility. It is, in addition, a feat of true literary art.
Dashiell Hammett on The Invisible Event:
Red Harvest (1929)
The Dain Curse (1929)