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Red Harvest Paperback – July 17, 1989
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"An acknowledged literary landmark." --NY Times Book Review.
"Dashiell Hammett is an original. He is a master of the detective novel, yes, but also one hell of a writer." -- Boston Globe
"Hammett's prose [is] clean and entirely unique. His characters [are] as sharply and economically defined as any in American fiction."
--The New York Times
From the Inside Flap
t honest citizen of Poisonville was murdered, the Continental Op stayed on to punish the guilty--even if that meant taking on an entire town. Red Harvest is more than a superb crime novel: it is a classic exploration of corruption and violence in the American grain.
Top customer reviews
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I love Hammett's short stories about the gritty, no-frills detective known only as the "Continental Op." Hammett himself worked as an operative for the famous Pinkerton Detective Agency and his writing has an authenticity not seen before or since. In this case, the Op is sent to a mining town where a crusading newspaper editor is trying to expose corruption. But corruption never wants to be exposed and his client is dead before the first meeting.
It's the story of a ruthless mine-owner who subdues his workers (and their union) by bringing in gangsters. His hired guns now control City Hall as well as gambling and illegal liquor. The ageing tycoon finds that he's fallen out of the frying pan into the fire.
And then there's Dinah Brand. She's the kind of "gutsy broad" who was very popular in the 1920's. Tall, strong, and carelessly dressed, she's nobody's idea of a femme fatale. A two-fisted drinker and a bum cook, she's made her way in the world by forcefulness, greed, and audacity. She knows how to play both ends against the middle and she's the kind of gambler who either pulls off the big deals or dies trying.
This is a fascinating book from start to finish. If you think "noir" requires a big city locale, you need to get acquainted with Hammett. He knew that tough, ruthless men (and women) go where the money is. And sometimes it's in a little mountain town called "Poisonville."
The remainder of the book involves the Op playing the cops against the gamblers against the thugs against the bootleggers. Murders happen every couple of pages as the players whittle themselves down to nothing. The Op plays games of alliance and betrayal. Along the way, the Op solves several of the murders with flawless intuition. Throughout it all, the Op is tougher and more dangerous than his adversaries, and usually one step ahead.
If any of this familiar, it should. If you've seen "Fistful of Dollars" or "Yojimbo" or, even, Bruce Willis' "Last Man Standing," where a stranger comes to town and destroys the equipoised gangs that control a town, then you've seen the Red Harvest plotline. In fact, Yojimbo and Fistful of Dollars were based on Red Harvest, and Last Man Standing is a re-make of Yojimbo.
I enjoyed the book, but I had two problems that keep me from giving five stars. First, the book shows that it was written in 1929. The dialogue is very dated with "tough guy" language that often eluded my grasp or which just sounded weird. Here's an example:
She stood up, suddenly almost sober, tugging at my lapels. “Tell me who did it.”
“Be a good guy.”
She let go my lapels, put her hands behind her, and laughed in my face.
“All right. Keep it to yourself—and try to figure out which part of what I told you is the truth.”
I said: “Thanks for the part that is, anyhow, and for the gin. And if Max Thaler means anything to you, you ought to pass him the word that Noonan’s trying to rib him.”
"Trying to rib him"? "Be a good guy"? Unfortunately, this sounds like cliched movie gangster talk, rather than normal speech, probably because Hammet's dialogue did become cliched gangster movie dialogue. Take this for example:
"“I may say, in all justice, that you will find it the invariable part of sound judgment to follow the dictates of my counsel in all cases. I may say this, my dear sir, without false modesty, appreciating with both fitting humility and a deep sense of true and lasting values, my responsibilities as well as my prerogatives as a—and why should I stoop to conceal the fact that there are those who feel justified in preferring to substitute the definite article for the indefinite?—recognized and accepted leader of the bar in this thriving state.”
That is dialogue from a lawyer in Red Harvest, but try not to hear Sydney Greenstreet from The Maltest Falcon voicing that dialogue.
The other problem I had was the way that the Op solved mysteries in an offhand way. There would be gunplay followed by fistfights and threats, and then, suddenly, when he needed it, the Op would just arrest someone who had actually committed one of the three or four murders that mattered. As a mystery, the book was not much, but as "hard-boiled detective," it is first rate.
Dashiell Hammett penned a seminal work in the genre of noir fiction with his first book, a lean, stark novel whose hard-edged protagonist adopts amoral means to achieve a moral goal. The prose is sharp and witty, and the body count is high. The real paradox is how a novel with such a bleak take on human nature can be so much fun to read.