Monday, November 2, 2009

Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett (1929)

From the blurb on the back of the 1992 paperback edition:
When the last honest citizen of Personville was murdered, the Continental Op stayed on to punish the guilty--even if that meant taking on the entire town. Red Harvest is more than a superb crime novel; it is a classic exploration of corruption and violence in the American grain.
I've always been a big fan of The Maltese Falcon and other noir classics, but I'd never read a Dashiell Hammett novel. When I saw Red Harvest mentioned in a magazine article, I thought, "Why not start here?"

Though Red Harvest is supposed to be set in a Western town called Personville, it feels like it's set in a big, hard-luck city. The only place big enough to fill the bill in 1929 was probably Denver. The nameless protagonist, a detective with the Continental Detective Agency in San Francisco, is called only the Continetal Op(erative). The book has a huge cast of shady characters that are a bit hard to keep track of. The strangest thing about the book, though, it that it is completely passionless--almost to the point of being ennervated. There are dozens of murders and ganglang killings throughout, but each one is described as cooly and bloodlessly as the next. Obviously, this coolness gives a really hard edge to the emotionless Continental Op, which I'm sure was Hammett's intention, but it also make it hard to feel anything for anyone.

Nevertheless, the dialog is smart, snappy and witty. That's the best reward for reading the book.

I admitted that I hadn't read any other of Hammett's novels so I wonder about his range of characterization, but if you've read (or seen) The Maltese Falcon, you've already been introduced to the main characters in Red Harvest: The Continental Op is a dead ringer for Sam Spade (actor Humphrey Bogart) in The Maltese Falcon. Likewise, Dinah Brand for Brigid O'Shaughnessy (actress Mary Astor), bootlegger Max Thaler for Joel Cairo (actor Peter Lorre), corpulent police Chief Noonan for Kaper Gutman (actor Sydney Greenstreet). They're all here--and more--and they're all part of the fun of reading Red Harvest.

1 comment:

Ardsgaine said...

I thought that the lawyer, Charles Proctor Dawn, talked exactly like Greenstreet, as in Hammett seemed to have deliberately modeled the character on him. And the lawyer's address was 310 Green Street. :)