‘Chandler wrote the kind of guy that he wanted to be, Hammett wrote the kind of guy that he was afraid he was.’
Red Harvest was Dashiell Hammett’s first novel, and the second that I’ve read, after The Maltese Falcon. Given its predecessor it had a lot to live up to, so it’s not surprising that it doesn’t quite make it; but there’s still plenty worth talking about, not least that vivid title. Although it’s not referenced in the text, given the level of violence Red Harvest contains you can probably guess why Hammett named it the way he did. As Galatians 6:7 so eloquently puts it, ‘Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.’
Red Harvest has Hammett’s agency detective, the always unnamed ‘Continental Operative’ travelling to Personville to meet with a client. Before he can do so, the client is killed, and the Op is left trying to figure out what happened. It’s not long before this quest becomes personal, and the Op quickly discovers why the town’s alternative name of ‘Poisonville’ is particularly apt. Everyone he comes up against – whether businessmen, politicians or policemen – is corrupt, and the Op makes it his mission to drive these factions out of town by setting them against one another.
This makes Red Harvest sound like a Western, and in some ways it is. It inspired (directly or indirectly) several films, amongst them Yojimbo, A Fistful of Dollars and Last Man Standing, which gives some indication of how influential (and elemental) Hammett’s storytelling is. Hammett’s writing is certainly cinematic, and very direct, with any description kept to a minimum. Early on, the Op describes an early morning scene: ‘the street was the colour of smoke.‘ Later in the book, the Op visits one of the gang leaders: ‘I noticed that two automatic pistols hung on nails over the top of the door through which I had come. They would be handy if any of the house’s occupants opened the door, found an enemy with a gun there, and were told to put up their hands.’
Like a film script the book is dialogue heavy, which also keeps it moving. The action happens at such a rapid-fire pace that keeping up with it was a challenge – I found myself turning pages backwards and forwards, reminding myself who was allied to who. The complexity of the plot was one of the book’s less successful aspects, and is in marked contrast to the briskness of Hammett’s writing. Perhaps the former was a symptom of the book’s original publication as a serial in the legendary Black Mask magazine, and the need to have breathless action in every installment. My advice to anyone reading Red Harvest is not to worry about keeping track of the shifting alliances – this is one book you enjoy for the ride.
Much more interesting is the character of the Op himself, which changes as the novel progresses. This is to such a degree that when, towards the end, he is accused of murder you’re not sure whether or not he’s guilty. The corruption that saturates Poisonville goes so far as infecting the Op himself, turning him into something just as unpleasant as the gangs he has set himself up to fight – to the point where he seems willing to do anything to meet his final objective.
Hammett pulls a similar trick in The Maltese Falcon, through the character of Sam Spade – a man described on the very first page of that book as resembling ‘a blond Satan.’ Hammett’s later book is full of characters willing to sell their souls for possession of the priceless statuette, and the reader is never sure whether Spade is amongst them. This ambivalence with his protagonists makes Hammett a significant writer for me, and still very contemporary. It also reminds me of a quote from James Ellroy, who in an interview with the Paris Review (well worth reading in full), compares Hammett and his successor Raymond Chandler: ‘Chandler wrote the kind of guy that he wanted to be, Hammett wrote the kind of guy that he was afraid he was.‘
You would never see Philip Marlowe behaving as brutally as the Op does, and neither would Chandler allow such doubt about Marlowe’s guilt or innocence to exist. Hammett on the other hand has a different view of himself and the world, and is much more fearful about what his protagonists might do when pushed to extremes. Perhaps this is because Hammett walked the walk – he spent time working for the Pinkerton Detective Agency in the 1910s and early 1920s and at least some of Red Harvest would have been drawn from that experience. In some senses Hammett is the Continental Op, and in a way that Chandler could never have been Marlowe. It is this is that makes Red Harvest such an interesting read – partly autobiographical, it contains all of the ambivalence, uncertainty and doubt that marks out any life, and certainly one as full as Dashiell Hammett’s.