Set in a fictionalized Butte, Montana, this novel has been on my to-read list for a long time. Maybe least known of the five novels by Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961), it is based in part on his employment as a Pinkerton detective in San Francisco, 1915-1922.
Plot. An unnamed detective (“Op”) for the Continental Detective Agency is assigned to a job in Personville, a western mining town often called “Poisonville” for its pollution from nearby copper smelters. The town is crime ridden and run by mob bosses operating in every form of unlawful activity, chief among them bootlegging and gambling.
After a crusading newspaper editor is murdered before the Op even has a chance to meet him, he discovers the extent of lawless chicanery in town. Aided and abetted by a woman implicated in the murder, Dinah Brand, he decides to clean up the town himself, a classic plot line from countless cowboy westerns.
Think of 1930s gangster films, and you get a picture of the action Hammett’s Op gets himself involved in. It’s a nighttime world of car chases, abandoned warehouses, machine guns, and killing. Long after you’ve lost count of the deaths, he takes a moment to list them:
There’s been what? A dozen and a half murders since I’ve been here; Donald Willson; Ike Bush; the four wops and the dick at Cedar Hill; Jerry; Lew Yard; Dutch Jake; Blackie Whalen and Put Collings at the Silver Arrow; Big Nick, the copper I potted; the blond kid Whisper dropped here; Yakima Shorty, old Elihu’s prowler; and now Noonan. That’s sixteen of them in less than a week, and more coming up.
Soon there are 17, and it’s a big one that has the hard-drinking Op not so sure he isn’t the murderer himself.
Storytelling style. Hammett, of course, defines a whole genre of fiction known as “hard-boiled.” The talk is tough and violence is always about to break out. The influence in pop culture seems to have been pervasive. Reading Black Mask magazine, you find the style often imitated, though rarely as successfully. And here it is in the movies, a scene from The Roaring Twenties (1939):
The tone of Hammett’s writing is not humorless. There’s a wry, poker-faced delivery, matter of fact, sometimes resigned and world-weary. It lives on years later in the clipped flat voice of Sgt. Joe Friday of Dragnet (on radio, 1949-1957, and TV, 1951-1959). But combine Hammett’s narrative style and the wild excesses of the novel’s storyline, and you have something that goes beyond deadpan to undisguised farce.
Organized crime is just plain butt ugly, and the people drawn to it are shallow and stupid—ugly, too. In Hammett, the same goes for the local police, incompetent and easily corruptible. It’s not the Three Stooges, but you can see them from here.
Red Harvest was originally published in four parts (1927-28) in Black Mask magazine. It was followed in hardcover by The Dain Curse (1929), The Maltese Falcon (1930), The Glass Key (1931), and The Thin Man (1934). It is currently available in print, audio, and ebook formats at amazon, Barnes&Noble, Powell’s Books, and AbeBooks. For more of Friday's Forgotten Books, click on over to Patti Abbott's blog.
Author's photo, Wikimedia Commons
Coming up: Glossary of frontier fiction