Thursday, April 24, 2014

Dashiell Hammett, Red Harvest (1929)


First edition
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.

Dashiell Hammett
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.

Image credits: 
Author's photo, Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Glossary of frontier fiction

15 comments:

  1. Isn't this the novel from which the term "blood simple" came?

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  2. We read this, along with the other novels, in the seventies after Jason Robards, Jr. defined Hammett on-screen with the success of Julia. That prompted a surge of paperback reissues and they were devoured. All great, and it could be, that Red harvest was greatest of all.

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  3. My favourite Hammett novel and some say that it was the inspiration for Akira Kurosawa's film Yojimbo. And I thought it was called 'Poisonville' because the guy that told it to the Op called a shirt a 'shoit'.

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    1. Definitely a play on words. I think we are both right. The Yojimbo connection is debated.

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    2. ...and Yojimbo inspired an unacknowledged adaptation, A Fistful of Dollars, and an acknowledged one, Last Man Standing, set in the 1930s and remarkably like Red Harvest.

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  4. My favorite of his works. Very brutal.

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  5. Great review, Ron. My friends always look at me like I'm nuts when I tell them this is essentially a Clint Eastwood Western, set in the 30s (with a short, fat guy starring as The Man with No Name). The Coen Brothers' excellent noir film Miller's Crossing took inspiration from Hammett as well, though it owes more to the Glass Key than to Red Harvest.

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  6. I have not read this book or any other by Dashiell Hammett for a long time. As the years pass, so do many writers, and it's only when I read reviews like this one that I resurrect authors I read long ago.

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  7. It's sort of a mystery whether Hammett was actually in Butte in 1917 as an undercover Pinkerton before entering military service, as Lillian Hellman claimed, or in 1920, as his daughter wrote -- or both. I've read some of Red Harvest, looking for his descriptions of Butte, but didn't get very far. Whichever, it was his disgust with the Pinkertons that turned him toward the left. Hope you enjoyed it, Ron

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    1. I expected to find Butte in the novel as well, but it seems more a generic city, the connections to copper mining only incidental.

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  8. From your review it sounds like, with a little nudge, it could have been the "Blazing Saddles" of the mysteries and crime.

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    1. Wouldn't go that far, Oscar. I'd call it noir farce, more grim than meant for laughs.

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  9. A fine analysis, sir, of my all-time favorite book.

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