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Red Harvest ()

    My God! for a fat, middle-aged, hard-boiled, pig-headed guy, you've got the vaguest way of
    doing things I ever heard of.
            -Red Harvest

He may not have invented the idea of the Maguffin, the basically pointless object of desire at the center of a thriller, but in The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett certainly popularized it (see Orrin's review).  Red Harvest, in it's own way, may be even more influential.  In it, Hammett's nameless Continental Op, a private eye with the Continental Detective Agency, is sent to Personville, Montana but his client is murdered before he can meet with him.  He is nearly murdered himself and soon discovers that the town is called Poisonville because it has become such a cesspool of corruption.

His client's father, Elihu Willsson, had founded and run the town--''an ugly city of forty thousand people, set in an ugly notch between two ugly mountains that had been dirtied up by mining''--as the president and majority stockholder of the Personville Mining Corporation.  In 1921 though, amidst ugly labor problems with the Wobblies (International Workers of the World), Elihu Willsson had called upon mob muscle to help break a strike.  The mobsters did the dirty work but then took over the town too.  Now he wants to hire The Continental Op :

    'I want a man to clean this pig-sty of a Poisonville for me, to smoke out the rats, little and big.  It's
    a man's job.  Are you a man?'

    'What's the use of getting poetic about it?' I growled.  'If you've got a fairly honest piece of work
    to be done in my line, and you want to pay a decent price, maybe I'll take it on.  But a lot of
    foolishness about smoking rats and pig-pens doesn't mean anything to me.'

    'All right.  I want Personville emptied of its crooks and grifters.  Is that plain enough language for

Well, the language and the task are clear enough, but not trusting Willsson to stay the course, The Op secures a large advance and sets to work.  He begins to sow dissension between rival mob factions, the corrupt police force, and Willsson himself, unleashing a symphonic blood-letting, the "red harvest' of the title.

The novel actually tells the separate stories of a series of incidents, including a fixed fight and a bunch of different murder investigations, all set against the bloody backdrop of the gang war.  You'll recognize the "lone man in the middle, orchestrating chaos by playing one side against the other" plotline from such movies as Yojimbo, A Fistful of Dollars and most recently, Last Man Standing.  Of course, the crooked fighter angle shows up in a plethora of subsequent movies and books.  But most interesting is that one of the murders he has to investigate is one which he may have committed himself.  After a night of drink and laudanum, The Continental Op wakes with a bloody ice pick in his hand a dead woman next to him.  This premise, the hero (antihero) facing the possibility that he is also the villain, was to become a real staple of the noir thriller.  Between these seminal story lines, the characterization of the paradoxically detached but committed Continental Op and Hammett's trademark tough slangy banter, the book reads like the Rosetta Stone of the hard-boiled mystery; an early key to unlock the subsequent history of the genre.

It all makes for some good sanguine fun.  Both the book and Yojimbo are highly recommended.


Grade: (A)


See also:

Dashiell Hammett (3 books reviewed)
Private Eyes
Dashiell Hammett Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Dashiell Hammett
-ESSAY: Suggestions to Detective Story Writers: Dashiell Hammett (1894–1961) (From Dashiell Hammett: Crime Stories & Other Writings, Library of America)
    -ESSAY: Watching the Detective: The Falcon's cynical influence on a young reader (Peter Spiegelman, February 6, 2005, SF Gate)
    -ESSAY: SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE: WATCHING THE "THIN MAN" MOVIES AS A SET: 'The Thin Man' is universally regarded as a masterpiece, but what about the sequels? (HECTOR DEJEAN, 9/23/22, Crime Reads)
-ESSAY: From Pinkerton to Nick and Nora (Nathan Ward, 2015, The Lost Detective)
    -ESSAY: HOW DASHIELL HAMMETT'S CONTINTENTAL OP BECAME A DEPRESSION-ERA ICON: After an era of gentleman detectives, Hammett brought the world a detective grounded in (and ground down by) hard-edged reality (SUSANNA LEE, 8/04/20, Crime Reads)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Page to Screen: Hammett (1982) (BRIAN GREENE, September 2, 2020, Criminal Element)
    -ESSAY: Nick and Nora’s Infinite Mysteries: Looking back at The Thin Man series and its contemporary critics. (Emina Melonic, 12/30/22, Splice Today)

Book-related and General Links:
-Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961)  (kirjasto)
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : "dashiell hammett"
    -EXCERPT : Chapter One of Selected Letters of Dashiell Hammett: 1921-1960  Edited by RICHARD LAYMAN with JULIE M. RIVETT
    -GRAVE : Samuel Dashiell Hammett, Sergeant, United States Army (Arlington Cemetery)
    -Literary Research Guide: Dashiell Hammett (1894 - 1961)
    -Dashiell Hammett (A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page)
    -Authors and Creators : Dashiell Hammett Also wrote as Peter Collinson, Daghull Hammett, Samuel Dashiell, Mary Jane Hammett (1894-1961) (Thrilling Detective)
    -(Samuel) Dashiell Hammett (Rara-Avis)
    -Mystery Net : Mystery Greats : Dashiell Hammett
    -American Masters - Dashiell Hammett. Detective. Writer (PBS)
    -DASHIELL HAMMETT (Stop You're Killing Me)
    -Dashiell Hammett (Noir)
    -Dashiell Hammett :  A Pioneer of Noir
    -Dashiell Hammett (Spartacus)
    -Dashiell Hammett's San Francisco
    -The Continental Detective Agency :  Dashiell Hammett: biography, books and more...
    -Continental Op Page
    -The Maltese Falcon FAQ
    -Notes on Dashiell Hammett Fiction (Richard M Heli)
    -ARTWORK: Dashiell Hammett in the Dell 'map-backs'
    -LINKS : The Hammett-List WWW Page
    -READING GROUP GUIDE : The Maltese Falcon  by Dashiell Hammett (Random House)
    -ESSAY : Literary leftovers : Does even the most devoted fan really want to scrape the bottom of Dashiell Hammett's desk drawer? (David Bowman, Salon)
    -ESSAY : Genesis: Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon  Chapter Two of Feminine Transgression and the Hypermasculine Response in the American Hard-Boiled Novel (Don Haynes)
    -ESSAY : Hammett Dash  A walking 'Jeopardy' question conducts his essential literary walking tour (Dara Colwell, Metro Active Books)
    -ESSAY : Before "The Thin Man" : However legendary their romance, Dashiell Hammett did his best work before he met Lillian Hellman (Dick Lochte, salon)
    -ESSAY: CRIME IN EVERY HAMLET (Marilyn Stasio, NY Times Book Review)
    -ARCHIVES : "dashiell hammett (NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Woman in the Dark A Novel of Dangerous Romance By Dashiell Hammett  (NEWGATE CALLENDAR, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of  Nightmare Town: Stories by Dashiell Hammett (Michael Carlson, booksonline uk)
    -REVIEW: of DASHIELL HAMMETT A Life. By Diane Johnson (George Stade, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of DASHIELL HAMMETT. A Life. By Diane Johnson (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of HAMMETT, A Life at the Edge. By William F. Nolan (Julian Symon, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of HELLMAN AND HAMMETT The Legendary Passion of Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett. By Joan Mellen (Terry Teachout, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of  SHADOW MAN. The Life of Dashiell Hammett. By Richard Laman (John Leonard, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Double Lives Spies and Writers in the Secret Soviet War of Ideas Against the West By Stephen Koch (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of Selected Letters of Dashiell Hammett: 1921-1960  Edited by RICHARD LAYMAN with JULIE M. RIVETT (DAVID THOMSON, NY Times Book Review)

    -REVIEW: of LILLIAN HELLMAN The Image, the Woman. By William Wright (Frank Rich, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of LILLIAN HELLMAN Her Legend and Her Legacy. By Carl Rollyson (Helen Dudar, NY Times Book Review)

    -INFO : Dashiell Hammett (imdb)
    -INFO: Yojimbo (1961)(imdb)
    -REVIEW: of  Yojimbo (1961) (DVD File)
    -REVIEW: of Yojimbo (Keith H Brown, Edinburgh University Film Society)

    -African American Mystery Page
    -Black Street Fiction
    -Crime Writers (David King)
    -Dangerous Dames: A Timeline of Some of the Major Female Eyes (Thrilling Detectives)
    -Edgar Award: Best First Novel
    -Film Noir and Pulp Fiction
    -A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection
    -Gumshoe Site
    -Hardboiled : online reference site for all things noir
    -Hardboiled Heaven
    -Hard Boiled Noir Webring
    -Martin's Film Noir Page
    -Mysterious Home Page The Online Mystery Network
    -Mystery Net Awards Page
    -No Night Sweats
    -RARA-AVIS : mailing list devoted to the discussion of hardboiled (and noir) fiction
    -The Reader's Corner presents  Female Sleuths
    -Thrilling Detective Website
    -Twists, Slugs and Roscoes: A Glossary of Hardboiled Slang
    -Women of Mystery (Bookaholic)
    -Hard Boiled Writing from a Private Eye (A Conversation with Steven Marcus)