Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett is the first of five novels Hammett wrote. It was published in 1929, about seven years after he started getting his short stories published.
Like many of his short stories, Red Harvest features an operative of the Continental Detective Agency, known only as The Continental Op. Hammett himself had worked for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency from 1915 to February 1922, with time off to serve in World War I.
In her memoir Scoundrel Time (1976), Lillian Hellman said that Hammett, refused an offer of $5,000 to kill union organizer Frank Little during a mining strike in Butte Montana while Hammett was with the Pinkertons. Little was later lynched by an unknown group of men. According to Hellman,
“Through the years he was to repeat that bribe offer (to kill Frank Little) so many times, that I came to believe, knowing him now, that it was a kind of key to his life. He had given a man the right to think he would murder, and the fact that Frank Little was lynched with three other men in what was known as the Everett Massacre must have been, for Hammett, an abiding horror. I think I can date Hammett’s belief that he was living in a corrupt society from Little’s murder.”
This episode (and others) soured Hammett on the Pinkertons and formed the basis of Red Harvest. In Red Harvest, the Op arrives in the town Personville (referred to by its residents as Poisonville) having been hired by the editor of the local paper. The editor is murdered within hours of the Op’s arrival and the Op finds himself embroiled in a power struggle between the viscous criminals of the town and the corrupt police and business leaders. The paper’s owner (Elihu Willsson) and father of the murdered editor (but no angel) hires the Op to find his son’s killer and clean up the town. The Op pursues this mission with a passion–whether or not Elihu likes the results.
The Op finds himself getting a bit too involved as the bodies begin piling up he says:
“If I don’t get away soon I’ll be going blood simple like the natives,” says the Op. “I’ve arranged a killing or two in my time, when they were necessary. But this is the first time I’ve ever got the fever”
I enjoyed this book quite a bit as I read it. It took me a little bit to get used to Hammett’s style. He is fairly spare in his prose, but uses it to great effect. The plot proceeds at a breakneck pace with plenty of action and twists galore.
There appears to be quite a bit of contention between fans of Chandler and fans of Hammett out on the net. Chandler certainly seems to have admired and acknowledged Hammett’s work and I would say that there is definitely room to like both.1 I would say that Chandler’s prose is the more lovely of the two but Hammett has a certain spare beauty of his own:
It was nearly seven o’clock when I came out of the nap. I washed, dressed, loaded my pockets with a gun and a pint flask of Scotch, and went up to Dinah’s.
Hard drinking, hard boiled fun–from the very start of hard boiledness.
Now that I’ve read another of Hammett’s books (The Dain Curse) I am finding myself liking this one less in retrospect. There are some stylistic problems that I was willing to forgive in a first book and was hoping that the good parts would emerge while the bad ones sank. The opposite trend seems to be happening however. Thus, I am changing my opinion to be much more firmly in the really liking Chandler camp and much less in the Hammett camp. Hammett certainly deserves some praise for forming many of the idioms of the hard boiled detective, but prose-wise, well Chandler has him by a mile.