FFB: Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett

I know, I know — when you suggest a classic author for FFB a lot of people will roll their eyes. “Forgotten by whom?” but I’d make an argument for Red Harvest very much being out of favour in the traditional canon of crime classics. I admit to not having the love for the Continental Op the first time I read those stories. The Maltese Falcon is just so good and I so adore The Thin Man and the films based on both those books, classics in their own right, too.

And no kidding, there are classic films associated with Red Harvest too — no less than Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars, too. Plus the Coen brothers swiped the title and concept for Blood Simple from the book and while Miller’s Crossing isn’t exactly an adaptation, it pulls a lot from this novel. The Big Lebowski is more Chandlerian, but the love they have for the noirish grit is plain.

I’ve been trying to make the hard choices for the crime course in the spring (argh) and have finally made my peace with not trying to overstuff the reading list but to offer them a sort of gateway drug into the noirish side of crime. I was deciding which Hammett to use, going back and forth between Falcon and Thin Man when I considered whether to use this one instead. Re-reading it on the train down to Grand Central, then finishing it on the train to Dundee, I knew why it had taken on such a magnetic pull.

It has such a contemporary feel. The Continental Op battles the effects of early 20th century corruption: a town boss who crushed labour, then found his violent new bedfellows had — gasp! — no compunction about muscling into his world and filling their pockets, too. The oligarch Wilsson initially funds the investigation (after the Op’s original client, his son, has been murdered) in hopes of knocking out the competition. The extra S in his name allows Hammett just enough leeway to make him hosting peace talks just enough of a joke for a chuckle. As we seem to be returning to the age of robber barons and town bosses, the pervasive miasma of corruption smells all too familiar. Even the Op knows the deeper he wades into it, the more he risks picking up the stink himself. The last part of the book benefits from the tension that provokes, as we too wonder just how far he will go to take them all down.

Some great lines, starting with the opening sentence, a killer:

“I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte.” How’s that for a kick off? Each word perfect, specific but not too over the top and the book maintains the tone throughout with gangsters named Reno, Whisper and Pete the Finn.

Dinah Brand — described by the chief of police as “A soiled dove, as the fellow says, a de luxe hustler, a big league gold-digger” — becomes the linchpin of the novel and the Op’s uneasy colleague in a few capers. One of her conquests tells the detective: “I suppose you’ll see her. You’ll be disappointed at first. Then, without being able to say how or when it happened, you’ll find you’ve forgotten your disappointment, and the first thing you know you’ll be telling her your life’s history, and all your troubles and hopes…and then you’re caught, absolutely caught.” With all the vamps and dishy dames that fill so much wannabe noir, she’s a real standout. Brand ends up a complicated and fascinating character and Hammett works on the reader the same way.

The Op certainly thinks so: “She looked as if she were telling the truth, though with women, especially blue-eyed women, that doesn’t always mean anything.” Heh, you know I love that.

Dinah tells him at one point: “Polly De Voto is a good scout and anything she sells you is good, except maybe the bourbon. That always tastes a little bit like it had been drained off a corpse.”

Meanwhile he could provide a good test subject for a sleep deprivation study: “I went back to my hotel and got into a tub of cold water. It braced me a lot, and I needed bracing. At forty I could get along on gin as a substitute for sleep, but not comfortably.”

There aren’t enough Finnish gangsters in early crime lit. I love his description of the fate of Pete the Finn: “Reno called him a lousy fish-eater and shot him four times in face and body.”

The toll taken: “This damned burg’s getting to me. If I don’t get away soon I’ll be going blood-simple like the natives.”

In the end the most appealing aspect of the Op is that none of us are too sure just what he’ll do, including himself. Even his colleagues don’t trust him completely: “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.”

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4 thoughts on “FFB: Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett

  1. Miller’s Crossing more derived from The Glass Key – also from the Donlevy/Ladd/Lake version which is excellent. Hammett is always good value. I think when I’m done with my Margery Allingham I’ll cross the Atlantic. See if he has as many women-who-are-the-ones-really-to-blame-for-all-this as Chandler. He has Brigid, of course, but she’s just one among a whole crowd of monsters.

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