Red Harvest

by Dashiell Hammett

She looked as if she were telling the truth, though with women, expecially blue-eyed women, that doesn’t always mean anything.

The Continental Detective Agency, a San Francisco based investigative firm, dispatches an agent to take a job in Personville, locally known as Poisonville. The nameless investigator goes about his hired duties of cleaning up some of the small city’s corruption, but as this happens he’s crossed so many times by so many people that when the job’s finished he refuses to leave until he’s had his revenge. Most of the novel is the nameless Continental operator rooting out deeply entrenched corruption, instigating and involving himself if all kinds of murder and mayhem.

I’ve got to have results to hide the details under.

There are multiple noteworthy facets of Mr. Hammett’s first published novel, originally serialized.  It’s got the relentless complexity. It’s got the lone man working to get the job done right amidst a sea of corruption. The dialogue. The femme fatale. The body count. A solid dose of cynicism.

McGraw was trying to look through my eyes. I let him look, having all sorts of confidence in my belief that, like a lot of people, I looked most honest when I was lying.

However, the pace of the novel is uneven. This works wonderfully at first, as the initial humdrum investigation is solved and the story leads into the nameless Op refusing to leave town until he’s evened the score. At this point the story breaks into a dead sprint, promising a masterpiece of a crime novel. But flat-out burn isn’t maintained, and the effectiveness of the move from slow to lightning speed doesn’t work quite as well the other way around.

Is it bad? Hell no! TIME Magazine calls Red Harvest one of the 100 greatest novels in the English language written between 1923 and 2005. This is a damned good book, and for huge sections displays not only difficult to match, free fall pacing, but properly introduces the type of character that would become so famous in the film noir genre: not a good guy, and certainly not a bad guy, but by comparison to surrounding characters he comes off clean. The Continental Op is missing some of the charm that we get with later writings like Chandler’s more playful Philip Marlowe, but this 1929 novel seems close to where the whole hard-boiled thing began.

I spent most of my week in Ogden trying to fix up my reports so they would not read as if I had broken as many Agency rules, state laws and human bones as I had.

Dashiell Hammett was an early master. With the promise of this first novel, pioneering and popularizing the tough, witty, hard-boiled detective and paving the way for the future heavyweights, big things are expected for the rest of the works in this collection.

“Let’s got down to Salt Lake. It’ll do you good.”
“Can’t, sister. Somebody’s got to stay here to count the dead.”

3+ stars

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