"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.