Having made my way through films, OTR, and audio dramas of work written or inspired by Dashiell Hammett, I decided it was time to make my way through his seminal (ahem) 1929 novel Red Harvest. In this novel we are introduced to Hammett’s hard-boiled alter ego, the unnamed “Continental Op.” Based on personal experience as a Pinkerton agent and a specific case in Butte, Montana, Hammett tosses us into the low-down goings on in a town without pity called Personville (a.k.a. “Poisonville”), writing from the perspective of his anonymous agent without pity.
Double-dealing and double-crossing fill the novel, from dirty cops to trigger-happy gangsters and from femme fatale to hard-hearted thugs. Everyone we meet in Personville is corrupt, and almost everyone we meet dies at some point in the novel. Along with named characters, dozens of gangsters bite the bullet — or get blown up by pipe bombs.
“This damned burg’s getting me. If I don’t get away soon I’ll be going blood-simple like the natives.”
As we follow the Continental Op through the mire, we soon find him as ruthless and heartless as everyone else in town. He tosses the crooked Chief of Police Noonan to the gangsters and the gangsters to each other, and sheds not a tear for anyone, even our bruised and bedraggled femme fatale Dinah Brand, with her torn stockings, whiskey throat, and desperate greed. He becomes, as he calls it, “blood simple,” meaning the lust for blood overcomes every other motive, sooner or later. To wipe out the corruption that’s taken root in Personville, sentiment isn’t an option, nor even second thoughts.
Ultimately, that’s what got to me about Red Harvest. There isn’t a moment of kindness, sorrow, regret, or affection in this novel. Our “hero” doesn’t even kiss Brand or hold a dying man in his arms and offer a gentle last word. He lets dying men confess and watches them die, he covers up evidence that make him look guilty without a pause, and he watches guns fire and bombs fly without flinching — even sending a thug off to die to protect his hiding spot.
“Play with murder enough and it gets you one of two ways. It makes you sick, or you get to like it.”
This isn’t Sam Spade with his tough demeanor but a soft spot for pretty women and the Truth. His few jokes are gallows humor, and he tells more than a few people he hopes they die.
“I haven’t laughed so much over anything since the hogs ate my kid brother.”
Based on films and radio broadcasts, I assumed that I’d being led through the tale by a hard, upright man determined to bring justice. But by the end, our protagonist can’t be sure he hasn’t murdered someone, and he only cares because he doesn’t want to lose his job or end up in jail. The novel is, start to finish, ruthless. No character to root for, no one to even particularly like. The world is rotten, everyone’s corrupt, and it’s only 1929.
Interestingly, cover art for Red Harvest varies wildly. Most say more about the era of their production or the stereotypes of the hard-boiled genre than they do about the novel. I’ll conclude with my thoughts on a selection of them…