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Hardboiled as a 90-minute egg
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.