on 16 May 2009
Dashiell Hammett is the granddaddy of hardboiled detective fiction, of smart-talking 'tecs and dangerous dames, of stone-cold shootouts and dangerous plot-swerves. He's the man who gave the world the witty, shabbily-noble Thin Man, the cynical Sam Spade and, in this, his first novel, the tough, vengeful, amoral Continental Op.
Red Harvest is the tale of the Continental Op's trip to the town of Personville, a place universally referred to as Poisonville and filled with enough double-dealing and corruption to make the wire's Baltimore look like Rock Candy Mountain. The Op has been hired by local newspaperman, Donald Willson, son of the town's big industrialist and effective overlord, Elihu Willson, but arrives in town to find his client dead. Soon he's drawn into the ongoing conflict between the town's rival gangs (and its no-less crooked cops) and into long sessions of bartering and drinking with money-loving good-time girl and knowledge-broker Dinah Brand. Shot at one too many times, the Op resolves to clean up the town ... by any means at his disposal.
Red Harvest is a thrill-a-minute, hardboiled tale that rattles along like a mobster's 1920s Ford engaged in a drive-by shooting, but it too often betrays both its pulp origins and the fact it was Hammett's first novel. The tale is episodic, with the Op working his way steadily through the town's mobs, and relies heavily on Dinah Brand's almost-oracular knowledge of Poisonville's double-dealings. The Op is none-too likeable, hardboiled as a 90-minute egg and out to clean-up the town for reasons which are none too clear, even to himself. The writing sometimes lacks the economy and directness to be found in The Maltese Falcon or The Thin Man. Yet, all that sad, there is a great tale in here (good enough to inspire Kurosawa's Yojimbo) and one well worth the read.
Aeschylus. The harvest of death is both plentiful and bloody in Dashiell Hammett's marvelous thriller "Red Harvest".
Dashiell Hammett, a former Pinkerton detective, pretty much invented the hard-boiled (U.S.) detective genre. The influence of Hammett's short stories and novels, "Red Harvest", "The Dain Curse", "The Glass Key", "The Thin Man" and "The Maltese Falcon" can be seen in much of the detective fiction writing that followed, including among others Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, Jim Thompson, Ross Macdonald, James Ellroy, Robert Parker, James Lee Burke, and Michael Connelly. The plot of "Red Harvest", Hammett's first novel, also found its way into movies such as Akira Kurosawa's "Yojimbo", Sergio Leone's "For a Fistful of Dollars", and the Coen brother's "Miller's Crossing".
"Red Harvest" begins with the arrival of the Continental Op, Hammett's trademark "man with no name" in the town of Personville. The client he has been summoned to see is found murdered before the Op can meet him. In short order the Op finds that Personville's nickname, "Poisonville" is well-earned. It is a town filled with small town greed and big time corruption. The Ops arrival coincides with the onset of a turf war for control of the city between rival gangsters. The Op pays a call on the dead man's father, Elihu Willsson. The Op soon determines that the town's descent into a state approaching a low level of hell began when Willsson imported some mobsters to break up a strike. Their stay turned out to be far from a temporary one.
For reasons of his own, perhaps just to be stubborn or perhaps as a matter of some principle or warrior code, the Op decides to stay and clean up the town. His method is simple, pit each gang and its various factions and sub-factions against each other until the dust settles and it is discovered that they have pretty much killed themselves off. The Op is not afraid to pitch in and help the process along.
As noted above, "Red Harvest" was Hammett's first full length book. Perhaps as a result some of the sentences were longer and more `literary' than his later books, by which time he had perfected a leaner, staccato, machine gun style of dialogue. Nevertheless, "Red Harvest" was and remains an impressive and exciting piece of writing.
"Red Harvest" along with just about everything else Hammett ever wrote is well worth reading.
on 29 September 2011
Red Harvest is acclaimed as one of Dashiell Hammett's best even though the work did not, like The Maltese Falcon, also become a movie classic. Brutal and cynical in conception, it pits a San Francisco detective against a corrupt Midwestern town nicknamed poisonville. The hero, after his client dies on the very evening of his arrival, becomes embroiled in a triangular fight between police, gangsters, and their common, industrialist paymaster. Shifting allegiances, gunfights, and repeated murders pepper the breathtaking contest that ensues. And the plot would not be complete without the involvement of the femme fatale Dinah Brand, the protagonist's beguiling but faithless information supplier.
Red Harvest is breathlessly-paced and highly readable. Still, I came to Hammett after having exhausted Raymond Chandler, and I did not find one quite on the same level as the other. This is a different kind of noir: rawer, punchier, less polished. The Continental Op, the anonymous hero, does not match the self-deprecating Philip Marlowe in complexity. Sultry L.A. has been lost in favour of a more rough-and-tumble setting. And the style of writing reflects this, stripped of Chandler's quirky yet apposite metaphors, of his ironic asides and wry character sketches. I will no-doubt be trying out more Hammett. As this did not match my extremely high expectations, however, I can only give it four stars.
Hard-boiled debut from Hammett. Set in the lawless town of 'Poisonville' our visiting out of town 'Op' discovers his client is dead before he ever meets him. Since the ex-client was the son of the town's fading business grandee, the Op takes on a dual mission both to catch the killer and to clean up the town; 'to open up Personville from its adams apple to its ankles'.
To complete his mission we have action, surliness, colossal alcohol consumption, corruption and tons of violence. The Op actually lists the 16 people killed so far and we're still only half way through the book. Even the love interest is a lush who gobs on the floor and has a permanent ladder in her stocking.
I had a real problem with the slang to the point that some footnotes would not have gone amiss. There is also a bewildering flurry of a cast who are little more than names rather than characters. Hammett's prose and dialogue is not as slick as his later masterpiece.
A remarkable contrast to the Golden Age crime writing being produced contemporaneously in the UK. Red raw, both politically and stylistically.
on 13 January 2014
"Hardboiled" detective fiction in its more recent guises doesn't do much for me: I find James Ellroy's world grotesquely gory, for example. Hammett's detection fiction glitters darkly, with its exposees of corruption and amorality, but don't mistake the machine-gun dialogue and femmes fatales for some kind of Jessica Rabbit cartoon: the world of fictional city Personville in "Red Harvest" is owned and run by some of the nastiest, most amoral people around. Just because the jugular lacerations and blood spatter aren't lovingly described doesn't mean you don't emerge, at the end, somewhat shellshocked after all the death and destruction, just another baffled civilian, not included in the vicious inner circle of characters that form the book's dark heart.
"Red Harvest" is the full-length outing for his Continental Op ("hero" of many great short stories), the nameless ronin who hires out his fists and his noggin to the Continental Detective Agency, not from any urge to do right, but simply because that's who he is. He's no charming gumshoe: he's brutal, amoral, with more than a passing resemblance to the bad guys he hunts down. He'll pursue the end in hand like a wolf, be what it may: whether providing agency assistance, solving a murder, despatching bad guys, setting them against each other (sounds like a cliche? Hammett did it first and best) or bribing snitches. The Continental Op doesn't care what you or anyone else thinks of him, but he reveals just a little something of himself, and makes a rare mistake, in his involvement with the wonderfully drawn Dinah Brand.
Blacklisted, torn apart by TB and a lifetime of boozing, 1940s style, Hammett's career didn't end with a blaze of glory, but his star never fades, because peple keep rediscovering his extraordinary modernist style and enjoying it all over again. Did he know, in the last year of his life, that the great Japanese film director Kurosawa had been inspired by "Red Harvest" for his film "Yojimbo"? The spartan, taciturn world of the samurai and Japanese culture that was emerging to the view of American artists of all types (including Frank Lloyd Wright) in the prewar years must surely have inspired Hammett's writing, only for Hammett's writing in turn to inspire a Japanese filmmaker to make one the great movies of all time.
on 2 February 2004
Dashiell Hammett wrote the Maltese Falcon- everyone knows that. What they might not know is that he also wrote other, better books. Red Harvest is my personal favourite. The Op isn't just another square jawed, comfortably hard boiled private dick- calling broads "Shweet'art," He is a deeply enigmatic- at times sinister character- his motives are murky and he is just as coldly manipulative as any villain Sam Spade ever faced down.
You might find a hard-boiled tough talkin' dame here, you'll also find crooked cops. What you won't find is a single flaw or cliché in this remarkable crime-classic.
on 18 August 2015
This is a relentless bloodbath and has more murder, corruption, violence, squalor than 4 or 5 other crime novels together. The speed is a problem - it works against the story. There is little character consistency and motives change to suit the plot development. The corpses pile up but there is no time for any remorse among the survivors who simply re-set emotionally to a blank state so Hammett can move the story on through. Violent death is a normal part of everyday life for every character in the story. People lose family members, colleagues, loved ones, without surprise, and carry on like it was a blip. Murderers confess the details of their crimes at the slightest questioning from the detective, in some of the most ridiculous scenes in the book. It is hard to relate. There is no reference to an outside world of rationality, apart from a few reflective references to the narrator’s sense of becoming corrupted by the place, it is like a book set on a different planet of constant extreme violence.
This seems to serve the point DH is making overall, and the disgust he feels at the political corruption in the America of his time, but it might feel manipulative to some readers who want a less overbearing steer from the author all the time. On this evidence, DH had limited ability to write action scenes - they don’t flow. Some readers might find themselves reading and re-reading passages to try and understand what is happening to who, by who, and who is watching. It is a bit like listening to a child telling a disjointed story. The plotting is so convoluted that he doesn’t even bother to realise it dramatically - after half way, DH sets aside about one page in every three for simple catch-up exposition.
Overall it reads like three or four stories sewn together, for experimentation. A lot of people probably like this book for its extremity and its street-language - an early example of crime noir, but I can’t imagine anyone would defend this book as well written. It’s important for historical reasons - but for thrills and storytelling, some of the followers, Jim Thompson, Jim Cain, Westlake, Wambaugh may provide a more satisfying experience.
on 10 August 1999
I like to consider Dashiell Hammett part of the Lost Generation. True, he wasn't a member of the crew including Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, and Hemingway that concentrated in France following WWI, but Hammett does use many similar elements unique to this movement, and Red Harvest is the epitome of my observation.
It is a fascinating book, taken from the point of view of Hammett's trendsetting Continental Op. He is sent to Personville and finds himself a solitary soul on a quest to clean the town of a corruption that is so ingrained that even he begins to querie whether or not he too is being corrupted.
Red Harvest is a fast paced book that is also a profound study of society, and it is a book that I highly suggest.
on 22 January 2004
The story is told by an agent from the Continental Detective Agency. He has been called to the town of Personville or, as he explains, is more aptly named, Poisonville. His client is Donald Willsson, but Willsson is shot and killed before the Continental Op can meet him. He decides to visit Willson's father, Elihu, who until recently ran the town. Elihu Willson winds up hiring the Continental Op to clean up the town by getting rid of the town's 3 criminal bosses. In true gangster-style, the names of the criminals are Max "Whisper" Thaler, Lew Yard and Pete the Finn.
The clean up job becomes the main focus of the rest of the book, although along the way, the Continental Op manages to solve the murder of his original client as well as most other minor crimes that spring up around him. The Continental Op is an interesting character, having no qualms about setting others up, knowingly placing them in mortal danger in order to uncover evidence or confirm his suspicions. He will lie, cheat and double-cross just about anyone.
The deaths come thick and fast and are mentioned off-handedly, almost as an afterthought. Red Harvest is fast moving and entertaining and as hardboiled as they come.
on 30 May 1999
All those writers that flood the market these days, who cannot write a book of less than 500 pages and who think a "violent" story means also "gross and gruesome;" all those intellectuals that cannot see pith in dime novels, they should be locked up somewhere with this very slim book and not be released until they have learned some facts of literature.This is a gem of a book, from the unforgettable opening paragraph to the final "he gave me merry hell," there is not one word, one comma or one period too many. Hammett can describe a character or a situation in five lines, the way a good painter may draw a human figure or an object with just five strokes of the pencil. The plot is tight, raw and yet elegant; however not to be recommended for people with short attention spans, because it has so many twists and turns, and more characters than a Russian novel. This only adds to the interest, though. I have read this book over and over and always find new things about it.