Friday, July 12, 2013

Book Review - Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest

Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett
Published by: Library of America
Publication Date: 1929
Format: Hardcover, 967 Pages
Rating: ★★★
To Buy

The Continental Op has arrived in Personville, being sent by the Continental Detective Agency's San Francisco office for their new client Donald Willsson. After setting up their meeting, but before the arranged time, Donald Willsson is killed. The Continental Op approaches Elihu Willsson, Donald's father, to try to get to the bottom of his client's premature demise by lead being pumped into him. Elihu admits that Personville's nickname of Poisonville is pretty accurate. While still the town founder and czar, to all intents and purposes, the town is run by several competing gangs. The town is as corrupt and villainous as you can imagine. Donald was trying to use the newspaper to expose this corruption, and it seems that this is why he died. The Continental Op gets Elihu to hire the agency to clean up Personville. He cunningly has him sign a document so that even if Elihu tries to go back on the deal the Continental Op has the reigns and no one to answer to, except the boss back in San Francisco, but hopefully he won't notice the lack of a daily report for a little while.

Soon the Continental Op is deep within the rivaling gangs. Rumors and hearsay, as well as rigging a boxing match, are all it takes to set them off. Lead whizzing through the streets and gunfire soon become an even more common occurrence in this little corrupt town. The bodies start to pile up all while Elihu tries to get his erstwhile employee back to the city by the bay. But Poisonville has gotten under the Op's skin and he feels he has a score to settle. When it looks like they won't get the Op in a body bag, the corrupt police try to frame him for murder. Poisonville is going to burn, if it's the last thing the Continental Op does.

Up until now I have been concentrating my reading on the other side of the pond. The cozy mysteries of the British Isles set in a manor house with, in all likelihood, a locked room and a corpse. Yet the Golden Age of Mystery wasn't just relegated to our forefathers across the waters. America had a very strong literary tradition during the Golden Age, with authors like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Yet there was a distinct shift in the type of writing. Here in America it was grittier, more gang related, more hardboiled, with a distinct authorial voice that would later come under the Noir heading. While this style is more associated with the 30s, 40s, and 50s, which modern writers like James Ellroy have emulated in their neo-noir books like L.A. Confidential, Dashiell Hammett coined this style with his Continental Op, which would be the forerunner to that most archetypal of Noir characters, Sam Spade.

Reading Red Harvest, I was easily swept up into the Noir style, I could almost hear the first person narration as a gritty voice over as the Continental Op walked through Poisonville planning his next move. I could almost see Hammett, obviously in black and white, sitting in a dingy office, smoke rising above his head, as he typed out the story. While yes, to say all this is now a bit cliched as to my imagery, I was still amazed with the distinct style, which for all it's tropes running around in my head, felt just as fresh and vibrant as if it had just been written. Though the book did have it's rough spots. Red Harvest was Dashiell Hammett's first book. Prior to this he wrote short stories, many of which featured the "hero" of this book, the Continental Op. This fact did not help him, nor did the fact that this book was serialized in four parts in the pulp magazine, Black Mask. Instead of a cohesive whole, the book is basically four interconnected short stories, which makes the narrative choppy, and almost makes you not want to continue reading because everything was brought to a close and then a new aspect of the story was brought into play in the next section. While Poisonville gives an overall framework, everything else would fall under the heading, "and meanwhile in another part of town...."

Then there's the, how should I put this, cavalier attitude the Continental Op has towards death. I mean, I'm used to death in things I read and watch, heck Midsomer Murders is one of my most favorite television shows and the bodies pile up in that County like nowhere else in fiction... till now. I mean, holy geez people, I don't even know what the end death toll was. I lost count somewhere around twenty. Yes, twenty people are dead and the Op doesn't bat an eyelash. Gangs gunned down left and right and at the center is the Op stirring the pot, getting one group to go after another. If his plan to clean up the town was to eliminate every person in the town, then, well... he's succeeded marvelously by the end. He went all blood simple as Hammett coined and the Coen's later used for their first movie. Yet, I have to ask, was this moral ambivalence meant to be a reflection on the Pinkertons? I mean Hammett worked for them and the Continental Detective Agency was unambiguously them... so was he trying to make a statement? The Pinkertons don't have the most sterling of reputations and where to be feared in that at one time their combined forces outnumbered the US army. So was Hammett writing to the new style he was creating, exposing corruption, or perhaps biting the hand that fed him?


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