Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett (1894 – 1961) was published as a whole novel in 1929. It had previously been published in parts from 1927-1928 in a pulp magazine. Technically, it is his first novel, but he had plenty of short stories and other smaller published pieces before 1929. It is really quite an absurdity that I have not read any Hammett before. The only thing I can do about that, seeing as I have no ability to time travel to the past, is to read more now and in the future. I am about thirty minutes away, I guess, from a whole collection of Hammett documents and paraphernalia (photos, scrapbooks, writings, letters). The collection, owned and housed at a nearby library, includes about 250 prints and pencil drawings of Hammett’s work for the Army newspaper he created. He was stationed in the Aleutian Islands where he developed the Army newspaper, The Adakian.
Hammett allegedly wrote Red Harvest with a lot of personal experience and current events in mind. I suspect this has a whole lot more meaning to literary people than to Hammett himself or his audience. Not to say that he or his audience were daft, I just think he used what was ready-at-hand to create the story. He had previously written stories involving a character called “The Continental Op.” He split with the magazine over money issues. His first story back with the magazine, Hammett dedicated the novel to Joseph Thompson Shaw who was the newly installed editor of the pulp magazine (Black Mask). To me, this sounds like a writer chasing the dollars and not a writer with some lofty literary goals.
All of this being said, this is a very famous novel that I think usually receives top marks from readers and critics. Taken utterly by itself, not looking at context or comparing it to any other work, I do not see how it can get very high ratings. Even so, taken contextually and comparatively, giving the novel five stars seems silly. What is the comparison? Well, let’s look at things like Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Wimsey and Agatha Christie’s Poirot. The stories tell us about a more refined and genteel culture. The settings, characters, and plots are mysteries and isolated crimes. Hammett wrote this work which showed another facet of “real life” in which workers’ strikes, kingpins, gang wars, and corrupt police departments were the norm. Hammett’s depictions play up the wild, wild West zeitgeist in which the American culture of independence slides into lawlessness and corruption. Poirot ain’t comin’ to Poisonville.
However, taken novel qua novel, what does the reader of today get out of this? Well, the 1928-1930 time period had the tail end of the Roaring Twenties and prohibition marching straight into the “Great Depression” and general global civil wars. Knowing these basic historical facts, the reader should expect a story of excess and anxiety. Economies are toppling, but everyone is still partying, and there is a general confusion of morality everywhere. On a very small scale, this is what is occurring in Personville as it implodes because the fuse named The Continental Op showed up.
Why did he show up? Its 2022 and it is not common knowledge what the methods and rôles of the Pinkertons or the “Continental Detective Agency” might be. The story is that the Agency was hired to investigate a murder. This situation goes rather sideways and I honestly find one of the plotholes to be that there is insufficient reason for the Op to have stayed in the town. Frankly, it just seems like the guy is stubborn and as toxic as everyone else in the place. Anyway, he stays and decides to stir the pot to try to make the city combust with all of its crime goings-on. This is passed to the reader as “cleaning the place up” by the method of “turning everyone against each other until they extinguish each other.”
The story is written via dialogue. So, if readers want the story told to them through conversation they can find that here. This is, of course, a bit of a departure from the British detectives who are conversing, surely, but still we are given long paragraphs of general information. Hammett, the star of the new noir/hardboiled genre, keeps the dialogue crispy and direct. This is a long conversation between all the characters. Here is my complaint – all of the characters and their dialogue sound exactly the same. One conversation is the same as another.
Similarly, all the characters get jumbled. Its kind of difficult to sort out who did what to whom and whatever. I think that is kind of the point of the web of crime in this town. Toward the end of the novel, its clear that even the criminals do not know who is their enemy or their ally or what side anyone is on. In one sense, this could be an effective writing element, but it does not change the fact that it is a bit frustrating for the reader, too. So here is my main feeling on this: if all the characters seem the same and if I have a feeling of frustration/annoyance, this is not going to be a five-star novel – even if the novel depicts the scenery well.
There is a little morality tale here about sleeping with dogs. You know, you get up with their fleas. So, in chapter 20, our main character is unsettled and goes on a bit of a rant about how he has been changed and snared by the burg. In other words, the crime he is supposedly fighting against he has gotten snagged within and maybe has lost his moral center – if he ever had one. Which, when reading this chapter, I wonder how other readers/critics have said that this Continental Op is amoral? Anyway, chapter 20 is probably one of the most important chapters in American fiction – how about that?! I must give props to Hammett for making things worse – the next chapter, chapter 21, things get even worse for The Continental Op and all those rantings show there was substance to them. In other words, instead of just letting his character have a preachy monologue, he shows that the character had a reason to be concerned.
I liked the character Dinah Brand. I think she was really well-written and a bit different than I expected her to be. I felt vaguely bad about her ending, but she deserved it in the context of this storyline! One of the things a researcher should hunt for in his rummaging in the Hammett Family Papers should be who Dinah was in Hammett’s life. He admitted that nearly all of his characters were taken from “real life” so I would be interested to see who Dinah was patterned on. She was a hoot and probably my favorite character. Honestly, The Continental Op himself does not impress me. I feel rather non-plussed about the guy. He behaves as expected and he did not do anything truly amazing. I am kind of hard to impress….
I enjoyed the guns, cigars, and the rivers of gin flowing on every page. I like Hammett’s wordplay a lot. He turns phrases with an awkward fun-ness. One of the key characteristics of The Continental Op is his nonchalant manner. In the middle of gunfights his character is written as if everything is no big deal and he takes nothing seriously. He comes across as a man who is bored by anyone without a severe economy of words. He even gets bored with himself when he has to explain things and usually just truncates his own speech. He is all of our definitions of hardboiled.