Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest

It’s harvest time again, so what better time to look back at Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest.

Hammett is credited with taking the private investigator story out of the popular pulp magazines and transforming the genre into something of literary value. Hammett started his literary career writing short stories for the very pulps he would ultimately transcend. Most of Hammett’s early stories featured a balding, middle-aged detective working for the Continental Detective Agency. We never learn the detective’s name – he is referred to simply as the Continental Op. The Op was based on operatives Hammett himself knew, when he had worked for the Pinkerton Agency. As a Pinkerton operative, Hammett played some small part in Pinkerton’s War on Labor, something which troubled Hammett, who was left politically.

Red Harvest is the first of the Op novels, the other being The Dain Curse. Both are excellent introductions to the hard-boiled detective genre and to an unforgettable, if nameless protagonist. Red Harvest is told in the first person, something which became fairly standard with PI and hard-boiled fiction. As a means for telling a detective novel, the first person narrator is a natural – we follow the detective step by step as he visits various scenes and gathers the clues which enable him to solve the crime. There were earlier mystery authors who used the first person to tell the story. Most of the Sherlock Holmes stories and the four novels are told in the first person, from the perspective of Dr. Watson, Holmes’ Boswell.

As an aside, there are two Holmes’ stories told by Holmes himself (“The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier” and “The Adventure of the Retired Colourman”) and two told in the 3rd person (“The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone” and “His Last Bow”).

In fact, the novel that is sometimes described as the granddaddy of detective fiction, Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, is told in first person by various narrators, some of whom are not reliable. By using the first person in Red Harvest, Hammett does more than invite us to follow the detective on his rounds. As we never learn the detective’s name, we are invited to become the detective in a way that Dr. Watson’s narration of the Holmes stories never invites us to become Holmes, or even Watson. Since he is nameless, we more easily become him.

Also, in the Op stories and novels, we are far removed from the polite world of the English cozy story and novel. The Continental Op inhabits a nightmare world where all one should be able to count on is under suspicion – there is no sure truth on which we can depend. And, in this morally ambiguous world, the Op plays along and to the extent that we become him, so do we.

The story is as follows: the Op is sent by his boss, the Old Man, to a crusading newspaper owner in Personville (which is so poisonous, everyone calls it Poisonville). Before the first chapter is over, his client is dead. The Op is then hired by the editor’s father, a wealthy man who largely owns the town, to investigate his son’s death. But the Op doesn’t stop there – he uses the opportunity to set all the leading malefactors in town against one another, with the result that, by book’s end, we have a pretty high body count (hence the title of the novel). And so, though his goal may be noble (cleaning up the town and ending its control by criminal forces in league with the civic officials), his means are troubling. And we’re right there with him, co-opted as well.

One might suggest that there are other series that feature a vigilante hero – e.g. Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer series, or Don Pendleton’s Executioner series – but this comes first, and gives us greater pause. Hammer is a sadist on a spree, but the Op knows what he’s doing is wrong and has some pangs of guilt; we watch Hammer do his stuff, but we inhabit the Op to a greater degree, so we take a moment after the bloodbath to reflect on the morality.

The Op is also the granddaddy of several later detectives – most notably the “Nameless” detective of Bill Pronzini, but also Robert Parker’s “Spenser” – whose last name we know, but whose first always remains a mystery. The Op in this novel is also the inspiration for Akira Kurosawa’s nameless samurai in Yojimbo (comes into town, sets the malefactors one against another) and the “Man With No Name,” played by Clint Eastwood, in Sergio Leone’s Western trilogy starting with A Fistful of Dollars.

About the Author

Bernard Norcott-Mahany, a library technical assistant at the Lucile H. Bluford Branch, is our resident connoisseur of classic literature. He is also the leader of the Black Classics and In the Heat of the Night book groups.