Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett (1929)

People like inside stuff.

Hammett was born in 1894 and had a series of jobs before joining Pinkertons’ Detective Agency. After serving in World War I he returned to the detective business and also began writing short stories for pulp magazines, writing some 50 through the 1920s and into the early 30s. In the later 20s and into the early 30s he wrote the five classic detective novels upon which his reputation rests.

He introduced the character of the Continental Op – an unnamed operative for the fictional Continental Detective Agency (based on the Pinkertons) – in a story for the ‘pulp’ magazine Black Mask magazine in 1923 and went onto write nearly 30 short stories featuring him. After a few years he experimented with writing linked or connected stories. His first novel, Red Harvest, consists of four of these linked short stories, published in four consecutive instalments of Black Mask.

  • Part 1: ‘The Cleansing of Poisonville’, November 1927
  • Part 2: ‘Crime Wanted – Male or Female’, December 1927
  • Part 3: ‘Dynamite’, January 1928
  • Part 4: ‘The 19th Murder’, February 1928

The complete ‘novel’ with its 27 short chapters was published in February 1929.

Mentality

‘People like inside stuff.’ (p.66) They sure do. They like to feel there’s secret levels, hidden depths, concealed meanings, conspiracies, behind our mundane lives. Religion is just another kind of conspiracy theory. Our minds, evolved to suss out our fellow apes’ intentions, overcompensate and find meanings everywhere, anthropomorphise thunderstorms or bumping into doors, making the world full of intentions which aren’t actually there. Freud explained how our fears and drives, twisted and repressed by childhood traumas and social conventions, emerge as bizarre and florid obsessions and neuroses and behaviours. Everyone has them, everyone comes to their own settlement with their animal natures.

A fiction is an artificial self-contained world, a device, for generating complex meaning designed to entertain and gratify our meaning-sense.

There is, obviously, a wide range of styles or genres available to convey that meaning, to please the meaning-sense in our minds, from crack-the-case detective fiction at one edge to esoteric literature at another, fantasy, sci-fi, horror, romance scattered around, with a large lake of more or less plain story-telling in the middle.

Along the way there are countless incidental pleasures to be enjoyed, at innumerable levels: I’ve been there, I recognise that character, oh my God is Batman going to escape? oh my God is Elizabeth ever going to win Mr Darcy? look at those pretty dresses, wow is that how a Walther ppk works – from appreciating the skill of the overall narrative arc down to the level of the way individual sentences are handled; from wonderful description/word painting to  a sequence of snappily handled dialogue; the revelation of new and fascinating insights into human nature, to the vicarious thrills of physical trials and endurances.

Hammett’s novels offer the following fundamental pleasures:

  1. There is a dark violent world of crime beneath our boring everyday world. Ooh.
  2. It is complex, convoluted, a challenge to unpick and understand.
  3. But there is One Man who can unpick and understand it and explain it to us. Our guide through the Underworld, our Virgil. He suffers setbacks, maybe even wounds – to remind us he is human, to make him a better representative of the reader – but he knows everything and he will win. Stick with him, kid.

Plot

In Red Harvest, to feed the crossword and puzzle side of our minds, the plot is agreeably complex, boiling down to a fast-paced web of continually shifting alliances and betrayals.

There’s a detective agency called the Continental Detective Agency. Employees are Continental Operatives or Continental Ops and the (unnamed) narrator is one. He is called to Personville by a newspaper editor. He arranges to meet him that night but the editor is shot in the street. The Protagonist (the Continental Op or CO) discovers the crime and corruption lying behind the suburban streets of Personville. The whole town was created by Elihu Willsson, the archetypal old bed-ridden patriarch. During the Great War there were strikes in factories, the lumberyards etc. Willsson called in some tough guys to sort it out through violence and intimidation. But the tough guys liked the easy pickings and stayed. Willsson brought his son back from skylarking in Paris to run the Personville newspapers with a remit to uncover crime. But his son soon began to discover just how deep Daddy was involved in the badness. The chief of police, Noonan, is corrupt. Willsson Junior’s own wife appears to have been having an affair. The gangsters, including Whisper and his blowsy moll, Dinah Brand, reveal some of the dope, not least because the CO gets Whisper off the Willsson Junior murder rap.

The CO extracts a huge sum from the Old Man in exchange for ‘clearing up Dodge’, er, I mean Personville. After being shot at twice, the CO begins to take it all personally and, when the Old Man tries to call him off, announces he is going to go through with his mission and make this town clean again.

And that’s just the first forty pages or so…

Style

Hammett is famous for inventing the wisecracking detective and, since the tale is told in the first person, this means the wisecracking, street smart narrator. Compared to conventional English English the style and vocabulary are off-the-scale alien. To readers at the time it must have seemed the revelation of a whole new world, where a whole new language was spoken. To a reader in 2014, 85 years after publication, the experience is at several removes: set in a foreign country,  which has its own language, nearly a century ago, there are multiple layers to delve through, to get anywhere close.

So Hammett is credited with inventing the wise-cracking tough guy style – upon the chassis of a the ‘cool’, nothing-flaps-me attitude are built clipped, functional, no-nonsense sentences, larded with a large amount of (presumably) street patois, leading to a uniquely immediate and jazzy affect.

Criminal patois

Makes you feel clever, makes you feel part of the gang, on the inside, in the know:

  • Now I yanked the gun out and snapped a cap at Thaler, trying for his shoulder. (p.97)
  • bull = police officer
  • gat = gun
  • heap = car

Understatement

Combines the puzzle effect (ie can be so clipped you have to pause a moment to work out what’s happening) with tough manliness (ie I’m used to fights, shootouts, sudden death, nothing throws me!).

The grey-moustached detective who had sat beside me in the car carried a red axe. We stepped up on the porch.
Noise and fire came out under a window sill.
The grey-moustached detective fell down, hiding the axe under his corpse. (p.111)

Humour

Crucial ingredient. On one level the entire text is a kind of joke, with its comic book heroes and villains. It’s as plausible as a Jimmy Cagney caper, all wise guys and wide lapels and a steady diet of gags.

He stood at the foot of the bed and looked at me with solemn eyes. I sat on the side of the bed and looked at him with whatever kind of eyes I had at the time. We did this for nearly three minutes. (‘A New Deal’)

Dialogue

Hammett and Chandler are often praised for their snappy dialogue but it’s questionable whether anyone has ever spoken like this.

‘I don’t want to brag about how dumb I am, but this job is plain as astronomy to me. I understand everything about it except what you have done and why, and what you’re trying to do and how.’ (p.108)

It is more than contrived, it is as elaborately stylised, in its way, as Elizabethan blank verse.

Related links

Pulp cover of The red Harvest

Pulp cover of The Red Harvest

Hammett’s five novels

  • Red Harvest (February 1, 1929) The unnamed operative of the Continental Detective Agency uncovers a web of corruption in Personville. There’s a lot of violence, shoot-outs on almost every page, plus individual murders. Strangely, the CO himself says the violent atmosphere of personville has made him go ‘blood-simple’, becoming infatuated with murders and killing.
  • The Dain Curse (July 19, 1929)
  • The Maltese Falcon (February 14, 1930)
  • The Glass Key (April 24, 1931)
  • The Thin Man (January 8, 1934)
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