#842: Red Harvest (1929) by Dashiell Hammett

Red Harvest

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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.

~

See also

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)

43 thoughts on “#842: Red Harvest (1929) by Dashiell Hammett

  1. “It’s not merely tough, it’s inhuman.
    “In fact, there doesn’t seem to be a genuine emotion in the entire book. … People die, people die, people die, and no-one cares.
    “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. … Not something I’m keen to revisit any time soon.”

    QFT

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  2. Pingback: Red Harvest (Dashiell Hammett) – The Grandest Game in the World

  3. OK, not going to read it. Thanks for honesty and warning.
    I am sure excellent depiction of extreme virility last century but i prefer rather brain that brawn.
    Waiting for next book next revue.

    Liked by 2 people

    • “Extreme virility” is about right — if the Op shot any women it would be a Mickey Spillane novel.

      It’s not without brains — some of the solutions are quite well-reasoned — but you can get better (and clearer explanations) elsewhere without the nasty taste this one leaves.

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  4. Not going go agree with you here. So apologies upfront. But no surprise there as we’ve talked about Hammett and Chandler in the past. I think you and Nick are wrong in suggesting the book lacks a moral centre, and to ignore its Marxist underpinnings is poor form as it is central to the book’s theme. Equally the flatness of the tone and the genuine hardness is very carefully and artfully done, very far away from the adolescent red-baiting vulgarity of Spillane. It was a big influence on Hemingway and Camus because it’s a serious book and not a mechanical trifle like the dozens of such by Rhode, Wentworth et al. It’s a book that actually has something to say. You don’t have to like it of course, most GAD fans probably wouldn’t but it deserves respect. It’s not pulp hackwork. There is plenty of that to go around and the contrast in quality and intent and ambition should be clear to any serious student of the form and its history. To just shut it down, cancel it if you will, as just a violent farrago is really myopic, like dismissing Faulkner’s SANCTUARY as a mere “shocker’

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    • You make some great points. The cynicism in the book is a reaction to an utterly corrupt society. The violence is stylised but ultimately soul destroying for those who take part in it. For me, the Op is nothing like Mike Hammer- it’s Spillane’s character who is a distorted caricature of the Op.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I want to believe there’s some depth to it, but Hammett kills and kills and kills — largely off the page, and with almost complete disinterest when it’s shown — and there’s never any sense of the purpose to it all except how much the Op is good and shooting and so will happily kill his way through everyone. This was brought out more (and reasonably well) in the Bruce Willis movies Last Man Standing which is a very enjoyable examination of the same ideas, and if the book even shaded the same level of character interest as the movie I’d’ve found it significantly more enjoyable.

      Maybe I’m just dense and need pictures to understand what’s happening 🙂 but I don’t see the subtlety you and Ryan praise here. But, hey, Hammett’s the one with the bulletproof reputation, and a mere fraction of a fraction of his readers would still wildly outnumber mine…so Sam wins in the long run.

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      • I re-listened to our podcast on the hardboiled genre and we discussed MALTESE FALCON in the same vain – the seeming lack of affect on the part of Hammett’s protagonists is I think a blind, But I know you don’t think that. Fair enough 🙂 But Nick going around saying it’s trash suggests, to me, that he hasn’t read enough in the hardboiled genre. And seems to be skewering the conversation. You don’t have to like Hammett to appreciate what he is doing. and half of your review is positive and yet the conversation seems to be bending feelings on the book towards an only negative sense. Seems to me you didn’t like it overall, but liked quite a lot of it too. Let’s not get submerged by such extreme negativity. Nick’s entitled to his opinion of course, but if you’re going to be so dismissive of an entire genre it just make conversation impossible. Why do that?

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        • Alright – thanks for your calming, moderate approach! But I disagree with you entirely. This is a book without any literary merit, as far as I can see. (And invoking Marx and Camus hardly convince me; the former was a crank who inspired more murders than anyone since Jesus, and the second maintained that life was meaningless, and the really serious philosophical problem was suicide. Hardly inspiring humanist figures. With Céline and Sartre, Camus is symptomatic of the mid-20th century malaise – and to think that a century before, France had produced Hugo and Saint-Simon.)

          No, the hardboiled genre does not appeal to me greatly. I’ve read all of Hammett’s novels and four of Chandler’s. I enjoyed The Lady in the Lake and (possibly) The High Window, but I didn’t much like The Big Sleep or Farewell, My Lovely. One needn’t be an aficionado of a genre to enjoy a book; one may appreciate it more, but a book should also appeal to a more general reader – and in this case, one who has read deeply in detective fiction.

          I would also place any of Street’s books above Hammett’s: he could plot; and he believed in reason, evidence, science, and the rule of law. Even the rather anodyne Wentworth is preferable.

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          • OK Nick, we’re clearly coming at this from very different points of view. I don’t think we’re going to reach any sort of consensus at this rate. As this is Jim’s gaff I’ll leave it there. Feel free to PM me of course.

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          • I run the risk of siccing you onto one of my favourites only for you to tear him down and leave me disconsolate, but have you read much Jim Thompson, Nick? That man could plot and write.

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          • No, the hardboiled genre does not appeal to me greatly.

            I’m probably not the most qualified person to comment on this having only casually read Chandler, Hammett and MacDonald, but my experience with the hardboiled genre is that its giants aren’t always representative of the writers who followed in their footsteps. Even though critics love banging on about them.

            Not every hardboiled writer drenched their work in bleak, soul-destroying nihilism or were all that indifferent to plotting. D.L. Champion’s Allhoff series is one of the darkest, most uncomfortable and sometimes darkly humorous things I’ve come across, but “The Day Nobody Died” is short masterpiece of detective fiction. Norbert Davis basically wrote a hardboiled Scoody-Doo for adults with Carstairs and Doan. I’m with you on Chandler and Hammett, but don’t let them distract you from Roman McDougald, Fredric Brown, Brett Halliday, Jonathan Latimer or Bill Pronzini.

            I’ve added Jim Thompson’s Nothing More Than Murder to my wishlist on your recommendation.

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            • its giants aren’t always representative of the writers who followed in their footsteps. Even though critics love banging on about them

              This, I feel, is the difficulty faced by genre fiction in general — it is accepted by people who dip into it only occasionally that a limited number of writers or styles exemplify the genre as a whole and that ends up being parrotted to a point that even those who should know better stifle appreciation by similarly reducing unfairly (“Ellery Queen is the American detective story…”).

              So, yeah, the reduction of “Hardboiled” to “Hammett and Chandler” will lead people to disregard anything with the label attached, and, perhaps paradoxically, to reject anything that isn’t exactly Chandler or Hammett as not being Hardboiled, and thus adding to the incorrect perception.

              Man, we make life difficult for ourselves, eh?

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    • I usually agree with Cavershamragu, and I do here. I just want to add that, as with all his books, the formal clued mystery is present, and pretty decent.

      The book is also the source of Yojimbo.

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  5. An excellent and thought provoking review, as always, but I disagree with pretty much everything in it!
    😀
    I love Red Harvest: in fact, I teach it on a literature course, so I’ve read it many times. I think you’ve made some good points, but there is one argument where I think you have missed the mark, where you say

    “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.”

    I think this is in fact a brilliantly written scene, which implicitly reveals much about the Op. If you read that scene again, the Op wakes up, and when he sees the dead body, he never refers to [redacted] by her name for the rest of the scene, as he moves around the body, looking for evidence. She becomes only “the girl”, never her name. The Op deliberately distances himself from her precisely because he cared for her, at least a little. When she is dead, he depersonalises her because he doesn’t want to face that. The Op also drains a bottle of whiskey after finding her body. So while he never says he is upset by her death, I would argue in that scene it’s all there, but it’s all between the lines- at least I think so!

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    • Spot-on Ryan, thanks for pointing that out so well. There’s a lot of deflection in Hammett but it is done very artfully and I think what he thinks about the people in the world he creates does come through, albeit obliquely. It’s such great writing, matching the hard exterior that the characters put on, but he does show what is really happening underneath. RED HARVEST is a great book, though admittedly I have probably gone back more often to MALTESE FALCON and GLASS KEY.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I buy in more in Dain Curse, mainly because he seems legitimately interested in the safety of the woman at the centre of that.

        I appreciate that I’ll be in the minority where Harvest is concerned — that’s cool, I see no point in pretending I loved it (not that I’m suggesting you or anyone else is suggesting that I should — whew, figure that one out!) just so people will like me 😀

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    • See, I see that completely differently: she’s no longer alive to be of use to him, so he loses all interest in her. It left so utterly cold and uncomfortable. Weird, innit, how we read the exact same words and get entirely different opinions from them?

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      • I think one mark of a truly great book is that it can inspire equal parts adoration and dislike from different readers. Nick thinks it’s worthless trash, and I think it’s a 20th century classic. Not many books can provoke such disparate reactions, so I’m counting that as a win for Hammett!

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        • I dunno, man, I think most books can provoke wildly opposing opinions — Hammett and the others just have the readership for these to be well-known or broadly-acknowledged.

          A great book surely has to do more than just make some people love it and some hate it. That’s just what books do!

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        • Good point. I think that’s true of real art. Trash inspires boredom not repulsion. For example I truly hate, really loathe, the 60s movie Bonnie & Clyde. I wouldn’t have such a reaction if there wasn’t substance in it to react to. Mickey Spillane I simply cannot be interested enough in to finish (I have set I, The Jury aside 4 times).

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      • Regarding your point about the scene with the dead girl. That’s fascinating as that interpretation of the scene had never occurred to me before. And once again- the fact that even this brief scene in the novel is open to two entirely different and conflicting interpretations, both equally supported by textual evidence, indicates something special about this book.

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  6. It possibly influenced Yojimbo which then gave us A Fistful of Dollars and then the superior For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly so I’m glad it was written. I thought ROT13 SPOILER gung gur zvfurneq znpf sbe znk pyhr was brilliant

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      • It also influenced the Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing- which is essentially “Red Harvest” meets “The Glass Key.” The Coens also borrowed “What’s the rumpus?”, a greeting from Red Harvest for Miller’s Crossing.

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    • See, double- and triple- and quadruple-crosses could and should make for an exciting read, provided you’re invested in the risk of discovery. Here it’s just “I’m working for Team A, now I’m working for Team B, someone shot up Team D so I’m using Team A to smoke out Team C” and…nothing to make it thrilling or suspenseful.

      The individual murders, often having nothing to do with this central gang warfare, are surprising an engaging because they’re motivated by something you can understand (even if you barely see any of that emotion on the page). The “playing X off against Y” stuff might as well be a chess book with some pages ripped out for all the heart it’s given and all the structure it has.

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  7. Having read most of Hammett, I’m still not sure what I think of him or his work. This lively discussion at least makes me want to read the book again. My memory of ‘Red Harvest’ was that it was a sort of ‘Big Four’ novel, episodic and exaggerated, becoming increasingly impossible to take seriously. I think it’s fair to ignore the ‘Marxist’ framework of the novel; as far as i can tell, it is an empty framework, or nihilistic one (Marxist interpretations can easily be made to decorate the scaffolds of many structures). Yes, the moral vacuum is related to Hammett’s strike-breaking experiences, but as a whole it is not a condemnation of capitalism; the ‘Op’ is never a running dog but a lone wolf, motivated by entirely personal concerns.

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    • I don’t even know what a Marxist interpretation is. A bit like Anthony Boucher’s Rocket to the Morgue, which is apparently hilarious if you recognise the pastiches in that roman a clef, I’d rather it was a good story that simply happens to include Interpretation X, instead of a book that only becomes good once Interpretation X is applied.

      Feels like even the dreckiest dreck can be justified as genius if you pick the right form of squinting through which to look at it so that you ignore all the things which make it unpalatable to those of us who’re doing it wrong by just reading the words on the page.

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    • I disagree. The Op is first and foremost an employee. He is entirely defined by that, even to his name. Agreed, he does go outside his remit. But he tries to cover this up in his report. He is still chewed out by his boss in the final scene.
      I also think the condemnation of capitalism is quite explicit throughout the novel. The gangsters were brought in to Poisonville to break a strike. One of the very few characters presented sympathetically is a union boss. At the end of the novel, the Op’s victory over the gangsters is presented as bring completely worthless. The industrialist Elihu Willson, is back in power, and the exploitation of the town will continue. All that’s happened is a lot of people have died to bring back the corrupt status quo.

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      • I couldn’t agree more Ryan, and again thanks for stating it so clearly. I am bewildered and truly fascinated by how extreme some of the reactions posted here are. Does this happen when you teach your classes? 😁

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        • Haha! Generally the students enjoy it, though they are sometimes confused by the dense plotting. I don’t think anyone has really hated it in the several years I’ve taught it.
          Like you, I’m really surprised by the extreme reactions to the novel, though it’s been good to see them as it’s made me examine my own reaction to it. I still think it’s a revolutionary (for it’s time) crime novel- brilliantly written and characterised. Is it over the top sometimes? Yes, but it emerged from the pulps and that’s standard for them. It’s primarily a hugely entertaining and fast moving crime story, but dig below the surface and it’s about the contagious nature of violence, and the utter corruption of the interwar years.
          I love a puzzle mystery as much as anyone, with railway timetables and impossible crimes, but I agree with Chandler that Hammett was among the first (and maybe the first) to write crime stories that were also great art.
          That probably sounds incredibly snobbish- I’m wearing my literature lecturer hat. Maybe I’m over-reacting to the idea that Hammett’s work is “trash.” I just can’t accept that at all!

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  8. It’s interesting. Can there be a “canonical” interpretation of a text? Something that “…should be clear to any serious student of the form and its history”. If there’s such a thing as “death of the author”, could there also be “death of the textbook writer”?

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    • Interesting idea. I suppose you can have the author’s interpretation, but that would require them a) to be honest and b) to be fully aware of all the subtext when they were writing. Could anyone do that? I’m guessing not…

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