Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily
I have been lucky enough to get hold of an omnibus of Dashiell Hammett’s work and Red Harvest was one of the novels included in it. With uncharacteristic hours at my disposal I whipped through the 160 pages of the story in less than two days, enjoying every minute of it. Published in book form in 1929 it is apparently based on Hammett’s own experiences working as a Pinkerton.
In Red Harvest I get to meet The Continental Op for the first time. He is the unnamed narrator of the story and works for The Continental Detective Agency, based out of San Francisco. He is a repeat character in Hammett’s stories and is apparently one of the first major hardboiled detectives. He becomes something of a template from which Sam Spade and others develop.
We join the Op when he arrives in Personville to meet with Donald Willsson, a local newspaper publisher, and to receive instructions for work he wants carried out. The locals call the town Poisonville and as we progress through the story it is quite clear why. The Op has walked in to a town with a power struggle about to play out. Willsson is shot dead while the Op waits to meet him, and that sets him off looking in to his death. Willsson is the son of the industrial magnate who once ran the city but through his own making handed over much of the power to competing gangs of criminals.
The Op ends up working, sort of, for Elihu Willsson – looking in to his son’s death, and cleaning up Poisonville for him. This allows us to follow the Op on a trip through the underbelly of the city – corrupt police, criminal gangs and all of the unsavoury behaviour they indulge in.
There is much murder, mayhem and playing of dirty tricks. The Op clearly being a master at manipulating people and situations, some of his actions are questionable at best. It is a brutal story, with plenty of “lead” being thrown about, snitching, gangland violence and it only escalates as the story goes on. Remarkably, it is quite readable, with no really gruesome descriptions. The scale of the violence is pretty damning and the Op is certainly not a saint in any sort of guise.
Hammett’s language and writing style is very easy work. I still feel like I’m watching an old Bogart movie as I read. Here are a couple of examples of the sort of writing that peppers the story.
Describing the hurtling of a police car through traffic, with the Op ensconced amongst officers in the back seat:
Pat twisted us around a frightened woman’s coupé, put us through a slot between street car and laundry wagon – a narrow slot that we couldn’t have slipped through if our car hadn’t been so smoothly enameled – and said :
“All right, but the brakes ain’t no good.”
“That’s nice,” the grey-moustached sleuth on my left said. He didn’t sound sincere.
Out of the centre of the city there wasn’t much traffic to bother us, but the paving was rougher. It was a nice half-hour’s ride, with everybody getting a chance to sit in everybody else’s lap. The last ten minutes of it was over an uneven road that had hills enough to keep us from forgetting what Pat had said about the brakes.
While trying to escape a group of gangsters following a shoot-out at a remote location:
I spread the blanket there and we settled down.
The girl leaned against me and complained that the ground was damp, that she was cold in spite of her fur coat, that she had a cramp in her leg, and that she wanted a cigarette.
I gave her another drink from the flask. That bought me ten minutes of peace.
Then she said:
“I’m catching cold. By the time anybody comes, if they ever do, I’ll be sneezing and coughing loud enough to be heard in the city.”
“Just once,” I told her. “Then you’ll be all strangled.”
“There’s a mouse or something crawling under the blanket.”
“Probably only a snake.”
“Are you married?”
“Don’t start that.”
“Then you are?”
“I’ll bet your wife’s glad of it.”
I was trying to find a suitable come-back to that wise-crack when a distant light gleamed up the road.
As you can see, we’re back in to the same style and territory as The Thin Man, only this time with more violence and dubious ethics.
All up I’d say it was a good retro read. Quick and easy; the perfect short read if you love noir and tough guy detectives.
Happy reading everyone!