Popularizer of the genre, Hammett’s detective story is a solid mystery with plenty of quick wit.
I’m a sucker for this kind of stuff.
I love mysteries, and even more, I love detective mysteries that are set pre-1960s. I grew up on Earl Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason, another pulp fiction mystery series. Where Red Harvest is different is there is more grit to it — everything is or will be corrupted in this book, even the main character.
[spoilers/story.] The Continental Op (the protagonist is never identified) goes to Personville due to his services being required by a newspaper publisher Donald Wilsson. The locals call it Poisonville due to it being completely corrupted; the same gang owns all the important industries including the police force. Before he even gets a chance to meet his employer, Donald is killed. His dad, Elihu Wilsson, gets in contact with the Continental Op and pays him $10,000 dollars to solve the murder of his son, except the Continental Op has some other ideas.
The protagonist decides to not only solve the murder but turn the gang against itself to free Personville of its grip. In the Hardboiled genre, the lead is usually an anti-hero and the Continental Op is no different. After participating in arson, shoot-outs, and deceptions, he begins to get rattled as the death toll gets higher, doubting that his unethical actions might not justify the means.
“Play with murder enough and it gets you one of two ways. It makes you sick, or you get to like it.”
Then what happens is a psychedelic trip: the Continental Op takes some drugs to calm his mind to deal with his guilt. After a night full of visions and dreams, he awakens to find himself holding an ice pick that’s located through the heart of a mobster’s love interest. Now not only does the protagonist have to continue to investigate the mob, he has to investigate himself to see whether he is a murderer or was set up.
What makes this books so good is you originally get sucked in because of the death of the newspaper publisher. The murder gets solved pretty early on and is only used to give the Continental Op a reason to pit the mob against one another. Watching him play ball in four directions is masterful, artfully crafting seeds of doubt between the leaders and playing them like fiddles. There is no lack of suspense as every interaction is not only a pitfall for the mob but for our own anti-hero — one slip up and he will be exposed.
I checked this out of the library along with other stories as part of an Omnibus collection. Since the Maltese Falcon was a top 100 movie, I decided to give that a read, too. It did not disappoint, and I actually though that was an even better mystery than the Red Harvest. Danshiell Hammett was completely unknown to me before reading these two novels back-to-back ,and I have to say: if you want to read the first popularized incarnation of the tough, quick-witted detective, here it is.
Other People’s Takes:
- KMStudio: “exemplifies the transformation of the classical detective fiction genre to a more cynical detective genre.”
- Some Days You Do: “…the poetry, the poetry of the vernacular, the rhythm of real speech.”
- Detnovel.com: “Red Harvest is not notable for plotting or plausibility, but for the character of the Op, the cartoon-like carnage, and the brilliant style.”