I thought I will read a crime novel for Carl’s RIP event and while looking at old books that I had in boxes, I discovered that there were a couple of Dashiell Hammett novels that I haven’t read yet. So I picked up ‘Red Harvest’ to read first.
‘Red Harvest’ is Hammett’s debut novel. It features one of his most famous creations – the unnamed narrator who works in the Continental Detective Agency and who is referred to as the Continental Op. He is described as ‘short, squat and as stubborn as a mule’ and ‘his only enthusiasm was doing his job’. In ‘Red Harvest’, our hero, the Continental Op, is hired by a newspaper editor called Donald Wilsson to do some work for him at the town of Personville. The first thing our hero discovers is that Personville is called Poisonville by its natives. This doesn’t augur well. When the Op arrives to meet Donald, he discovers that Donald has gone out. His wife asks him to wait. Then she leaves the house, goes somewhere and comes back after a while and tells the Op that her husband won’t be coming back that night. The Op notices that there is blood in her shoes. He leaves Donald Wilsson’s house and while walking back to his hotel he discovers that Donald Wilsson has been shot and killed. He also discovers that Donald’s father Elihu used to own the town and all the powerful people in it, but in recent times, outsiders have come and claimed a bit of his turf. The important ones out of these are Pete the Finn, Lew Yard, Max Thaler and the chief of police Noonan. And because of the infighting between Elihu and the others, Donald was probably killed. The Op goes to meet old Elihu the next day. He discovers more about the city and he finds that there is no honest man (or woman) around. At one point Elihu hires him to clean up the city. The Op tries to do that in his own way – befriending one person and then the other and making them work against each other. And then one thing leads to another, we don’t know who is good and who is bad, people get shot and killed and the bodycount starts going up. At one point, the Continental Op gets two more men from his agency to help him out, which makes one think of a similar scene in ‘Desperado’ where Antonio Banderas’ character gets two more men to help him clean up the town. Whether our hero is able to come out of it all alive is told in the rest of the story.
I enjoyed reading ‘Red Harvest’. It can be regarded as a modern ‘western’ as there is a lot in common between the story it tells and the archetypal western story in which a lone sheriff or marshall uses his gun and his wits to clean up the whole town. Hammett’s prose is stylish and there are cool dialogues like this :
‘Who shot him?’ I asked.
The gray man scratched the back of his neck and said :
‘Somebody with a gun.’
I wanted information, not wit.
And this :
‘Let’s us go down to SaltLake. It’ll do you good.’
‘Can’t, sister. Somebody’s got to stay here to count the dead.’
And stylish sentences like this :
Tears were in her eyes. Through the water her eyes studied my face, apparently trying to learn how I took the story.
And this :
It took the referee half a minute to count ten seconds.
And this :
Our speed hung around forty, fast enough to get us somewhere, not fast enough to get us a lot of attention.
The Continental Op is probably the inspiration for many other future tough-guy detectives. But he also has a sense of humour behind his tough guy visage. At some point the plot becomes chaotic and we struggle to keep track of who killed whom and who is currently the bad guy and who is the good guy. But it all doesn’t matter as the book hurtles with frenetic pace towards the end. The story and the writing style looks quite contemporary till we encounter a scene where the Continental Op says ‘I am Lillian Gish’. (In case you haven’t heard of Lillian Gish – she was one of the greats of the silent movie era, has been called the ‘First Lady of American Cinema’ and acted in D.W.Griffith’s pioneering silent movie ‘Birth of a Nation’).
We are used to tough, cynical detectives, stylish dialogue and beautiful sentences in crime novels today, but in 1929, when Hammett published this book, it must have been a pioneering effort. I know this comment is coming eighty-four years too late, but I will say it anyway – ‘Red Harvest’ is a stunning debut by a wonderful new writer. I have read four Hammett novels now – ‘The Maltese Falcon’, ‘The Glass Key’, ‘The Dain Curse’ and ‘Red Harvest’. Except for ‘The Dain Curse’, I liked them all. I have one more left – ‘The Thin Man’. And a collection of shorter pieces – short stories and novellas – ‘The Big Knockover’. I don’t know what I should do now : Should I do what Jane Austen fans normally do – ration each of the books and read them slowly and make them last for many years? Or should I do what we do with Christmas cakes – read all the Hammett books I have got one after the other? Right now, my heart says that I should read them all now. .
Have you read Dashiell Hammett’s ‘Red Harvest’? What do you think about it? Which is your favourite Hammett novel?