Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest

Welcome to our new pulp book club – and boy, do we have some back room roscoes to investigate, some broads to pitch woo with and some tiger milk to put down. Confused? You won’t be soon. Get three fingers of that Jameson and light that cigarette with a match on your stubble (ladies, on the leg stubble will do). We are about to go deep, deep into the murky dark, my friends. And to do that, we’ll start at the Black Mask beginning with a little Dashiell Hammett, who first made the hardboiled genre popular with violence, uncompromising characters and the dark shadows of male libido.

HammettHardboiled godfather Dashiell Hammett’s work is the “epitome of good taste” compared to today’s hardboiled stories, according to noir aficionado Woody Haut. That might seem like a sharp slap across the face considering the usual shenanigans noirists aim to get up to, but without Hammett’s tight style, terse flâneur, and diabolical towns full of diabolical people, we wouldn’t have all the greatest hardboiled fiction of today. 1929’s Red Harvest is where it all began: literary critic André Gide wrote that it is the “last word in atrocity, cynicism and horror,” and Red Harvest‘s critique of company capitalism is still to this day second to none.

Hammett’s credentials as a writer of detective fiction couldn’t be better: as an operative in the Pinkerton Detective Agency, his experiences directly informed his prose, which perhaps explains why Hammett writes with such economy and authority. Many consider Hammett’s torchbearer Raymond Chandler more of a romantic, more of a lyrical poet of California violence. Yet Red Harvest has its moments, my favorite among them: “I have walked as many streets as I did in my dreams.”

From the first moment Hickey Dewey calls Personville “Poisonville” and his shirt a “shoit,” you know you’re in for the ride of your life. Old Red Harvest gumshoe Brian Taylor and newbie to the book Editor in Chief Stu Horvath picked it up and shook the life out of it. Enjoy, and stick around for the discussion all week! There might be some chin music.

- Cara Ellison

———

One thing I like about the Op: He doesn’t know what he’s doing. There’s no sense with him, unlike, say, Poirot, that he’s one step ahead of everyone, playing a game with everyone involved and just waiting for the right moment to expose everyone’s crimes. He’s, well, not necessarily bumbling through his investigation. But he’s this violent force that’s messing with the corrupt system that is Poisonville and seeing how it responds to him. The town itself is self-contained and he is an outside agent (both in the detective agency sense and in the one who acts sense).

- Brian Taylor

———

I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey…He also called his shirt a shoit.

The Op isn’t just violent, he’s honest too. There is only one time in the entire novel that I can recall him telling a bald-faced lie. Sure, he might not tell the whole story right away, especially if no one is asking, but he also doesn’t hesitate to tell these mugs – these bootleggers and gamblers and killers – the straight dope when it suits him. They don’t know how to deal with that – crooked is as crooked does – so they trust him to be as crooked as they are.

They return his honesty with candor and then they hate him for it when he uses it to destroy them. When the Op is worn out from all the death in town, he drunkenly rambles on about his desire to improvise weapons, not realizing that his deadliest one has been his straight-shooting mouth all along.

- Stu Horvath

———

I want to say it’s a particularly American worldview, this combination of violence and honesty. It’s not hard to see the Op as a kind of cowboy. Except where the latter’s violence is a mythic necessity for the establishment of society, the Op’s violence is there to purify society. There is lots of writing about the figure of the cowboy and Western fiction of the early 20th century, much of it about how the Western dealt with gender, women and civilization and religion versus, well, men.

Raymond Chandler’s Trouble is My Business was published about 20 years after Red Harvest. The introduction to this collection of Philip Marlowe stories could be a short essay on Hammett’s work versus the more British (well, and Poe-ish) detective story:

“The emotional basis of the standard detective story was and had always been that murder will out and justice will be done. Its technical basis was the relative insignificance of everything except the final denouement.”

Basically: nothing that happens REALLY matters until the end, when the detective explains everything that happened. When I studied detective fiction in undergrad, we talked about how there are two stories in this kind of detective novel: the story that you read and then the story of the crime as reconstructed by the detective. It’s not cut-and-dry, but you can be sure that, say, Holmes’ investigations are much, much different than the Op’s.

My God! For a fat, middle-aged, hard-boiled, pig-headed guy, you’ve got the vaguest way of doing things I ever heard of.

Chandler presents the American detective story, the hardboiled story, as an inversion:

“…obviously it does not believe that murder will out and justice will be done – unless some very determined individual makes it his business to see that justice is done. The stories were about the men who made that happen.”

Determination: it’s not that the Op is some kind of genius (although he’s very, very good at his job). Readers don’t sit in awe of his powers of deduction, we ride along with him as he acts. Which is the other thing Chandler points about about the kind of detective story Red Harvest is: it’s not the end that matters, but what happens along the way. “When in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand,” Chandler writes. It’s like the Op’s philosophy as plot construction: just do something.

The triumph of honesty, determination and violence (ethically justifiable, obviously!). The importance of action over reflection. It doesn’t get much more American than that.

- BT

———

It is also very American that the Op is, by his own admission, about 20 pounds overweight.

But I’ve already covered the Op’s forthright honesty. Meanwhile, Brian just perfectly summed up the appeal of Red Harvest: we ride along with the Op as he acts and the main reason that works is Hammett’s writing. The language he uses, the way he constructs sentences and paragraphs – I am in awe of it. It is full of energy, relentlessly pushing forward at a breakneck pace, never a wasting word, always surgically precise.

This is the first book in ages that I have dog-eared pages because of a line that was worth remembering. Listen to some of these:

“Who shot him? I asked.

The grey man scratched the back of his neck and said: “Somebody with a gun.”

or

You’re drunk, and I’m drunk, and I’m just exactly drunk enough to tell you anything you want to know.

“There’s no sense in a man picking out the worst name he can find for everything.”

or

I don’t like being manhandled, even by young women who look like something out of mythology when they’re steamed up.

or

I turned to Reno and asked: “Isn’t that it?”

He looked at me woodenly and said:

“You’re telling it.”

I continued telling it.

That last one is particularly great. There’s no real description of the scene or the men talking, just the rhythm of the words and the line breaks to tell you everything you need to know about their expressions and their tone. There is no room for nonsense there, not for Hammett, not for the reader and, most of all, not for the Op.

- SH

———

I think you’ve got the essence of why, for me, hardboiled is such a great genre. It is terse and about action and reaction: mouths are for kissing and punching, not talking, and when talking is done from the Op it’s straight and deadly. I think it’s interesting that Brian brings up the American cowboy in reference to this, as there are many Continental Op Office Doorhardboiled heroes who are essentially lone cowboys, limping through the saloon doors brandishing a gun to put things right. This genre is responsible for a lot of the American action heroes we see today and I think that is one reason why it’s so important.

However, as we go along these mean streets into the depths of the murky hardboiled psyche, I’d like you to see what people outside of the United States have done with the hardboiled hero – this is not strictly an All-American thing that Hammett has started. There’s such a thing as the Tartan Noir movement (from my home country, Scotland) and there’s a decent amount of Irish hardboiled novels too. Even the masculinity that the Op displays here has been subverted by female hardboiled detectives: Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski (ignore the film completely) is the toughest karate black belt badass I’ve ever read about – she’s constantly in a hospital bed, being fixed up for the next fight.

It might also be interesting in the discussion to think about the politics of this genre. This book’s title, retrospectively at least, seems politically provocative, and it’s also interesting to note that in the 1950s, Hammett’s support of leftist causes had him hauled up before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Hammett refused to give names. His books were removed from libraries as a result. Is there a left-lean in Red Harvest? Is the Continental Op a bleeding heart, as well as a bleeding everything else? Does that imbue the hardboiled genre with a working man’s ethic?

I’ll leave you to discuss. Happy hunting, ya bunch of animals.

- CE

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Brian Taylor, Cara Ellison, Commentary, Mystery, Pulp, Pulp Book Club, Stu Horvath
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  • Stu Horvath

    I think it is still really important to underscore the influence Red Harvest has had since it first saw print. When I finished reading it, I felt like I had just re-watched Yojimbo, and the echoes into gangster movies and westerns are pretty obvious as well.

    But more than just influence, I think it is interesting that the source material still holds up so well. We've seen what happened to Burroughs' Mars stories with John Carter in theaters earlier this year – the source material has been worn paper thin by constant borrowing over the years. What inspired some of the greatest sci-fi now feels bland and non-particular. That's not true of Red Harvest. I've seen it adapted, but the book is still special. That is down to Hammett's prose, I think. It is so damn vital, it is impossible to bleed it dry.

  • Brian Taylor

    I like that the slowness of communication allows the Op some leeway in his handling of the situation, which he knowingly exploits in a kind of creepy "ends-justify-the-means" way. He knows once the Agency's bureaucracy catches up with him, he's going to be in trouble so he's got to get as much done as he can before that happens.

    He has to step outside of the system he's a part of in order to take down a corrupt system. Which, interestingly, he's a total outsider to. Unlike Marlowe and Los Angeles, or Spade and San Francisco, or Veronica Mars and Neptune, the Op's not a member of the community who happens to be in-between.

    • Stu Horvath

      I forgot about that. I remember being vaguely surprised half way though the book when its finally made mention that the Op has a boss. He doesn't seem to be the type to have a boss. And then when you find out that he's in trouble, that his outfit doesn't run the way he runs – kind of makes you wonder if he was in Personville just for the joy of it, you know?

      • flitcraftrz

        This is really maybe the most troubling thing about his conduct in Red Harvest. He never really explains his motivation beyond a fit of pique. And maybe moral disgust, but the Op doesn't like to give us too good a look at how he actually feels.

        I've read a lot of other Op stories. He's a consummate professional, even a bit bloodless. What happens in Red Harvest is really shocking, based on the character Hammett established. And Hammett knows it's shocking, which is why the two other operatives show up to provide some context.

        But consider how early Red Harvest occurs in the hard-boiled detective genre, before the rules are set. Nick Charles, Marlowe, and every other dick that follows is going to be up against a corrupt world that is fundamentally unalterable. You can right wrongs, but the police are still going to be half-corrupt, the rules will be different for society's great and good, and there will be an endless parade of crooks looking for an edge.

        But Poisonville is effectively off the grid. Detectives don't get this kind of opportunity. Hardly ever. It cuts against the grain of the genre, which is about larger forces in society against which the individual has relatively little power. Here, the Op has practically unlimited agency for the only time in his career. And he uses it to engineer the deaths of well over a dozen people (and God knows how many foot-soldiers), even though everyone is basically begging him to stop.

        What the Op chooses to do isn't "setting things right", even though that's usually part of what detective stories are about. In their small way, detectives try to right a wrong in the world. To introduce some measure of justice. The Op takes his big opportunity to change a society and… kills off four criminal gangs, a police force, and turns the town back over to the brutal tyrant whose vanity and fear caused all the original problems.

        It's cool, but the Op doesn't come out of Red Harvest with a lot of excuses or extenuating circumstances. Re-reading it today, I find myself wondering, "Who is this guy?"

  • http://twitter.com/Carachan1 @Carachan1

    Isn't the hardboiled hero always really an outsider in every situation? All of those heroes you mention, even Veronica Mars, have decided to remove themselves from their environment in some way and have become a law unto themselves. I think the hardboiled hero is typically a flaneur type, one who divides themselves from people by being an observer first, and a participant second. The power really comes from the observation of systems – and the power of Hammett's style is that you, the reader, don't often know what exactly is being observed and what is of importance until the hero takes action.

    And that is brilliant.

    • Fearghus

      What I remember liking about Hammett (been a while) and Chandler as well is how puritanical the protagonists seem to be. They're in this venal, seedy world, and they're tough and reckless, but it seems like they're outsiders because they're so disgusted by what's going on. Pretty convincing case about the books as a critique of capitalism, I think!

      Anyone read any Chester Himes? Interesting interchange between noir and politics in his stuff.

      • http://twitter.com/brianmtaylor Brian Taylor

        Never read any Himes, but I'll look him up!

        In Harvest, you've got the "legitimate" businessmen who have an interest in keeping the crooks around because they benefit from it. And it pisses off the Op, but then he gets the bloodlust. I'm pretty sure he's aware of it, but it actually drives off one of his two coworkers who show up in town to help him out.

        • Stu Horvath

          I think the good guy thing is a con. The Op stays in town because he knows he can cause trouble and he enjoys it. The fact that it will be a cleaner, better place in the end is just an afterthought, a justification.

          I am reading Chandler's The Big Sleep now, though, and Marlowe definitely seems above the vice. He has no problem being disgusted at the gamblers and pornographers, though the undercurrent of homophobia is a bit surprising.

          • Fearghus

            I know what you're saying – though Marlowe definitely enjoys causing trouble for the sake of it as well! I read an interesting thing about the origin of the word gunsel, that Hammett uses quite a lot, a while ago.

            In context I just thought it meant, like, 'young thug', but apparently at the time it had pretty strong connection with gayness, maybe specifically in the sense of a younger gay guy. Gives a different air to some of the interactions in the Maltese Falcon.

            Homosexuality and the noir sensibility, where's my PHD funding at??

          • http://twitter.com/brianmtaylor Brian Taylor

            oh look, comments are back!

            There's definitely stuff going on with Cairo in the Maltese Falcon, too. His handkerchiefs are perfumed!

            Also I'm picking up one of Himes's books from the library tomorrow. Looking forward to it.

  • Brian Taylor

    Oh hey what about the femmes fatale?

    • Stu Horvath

      Oh, yea. I think she's a fantastic inversion of the glamorous stereotype we currently hold of the femme fatale (at some point, doesn't the Op ask himself, 'THIS is the woman who as her pick of the men of Poisonville?"). But even with her stocking runs and thick thighs and spotted dress, the Op still comes under her spell, though not because she's a vamp, but because she's a drunk. There's a lot to talk about there…

      • http://twitter.com/brianmtaylor Brian Taylor

        The Op himself is no physical prize: "He [Stanley, Elihu's secretary] was weedy, nearly a head taller than I, but fifty pounds lighter. Some of my 190 pounds were fat, but not all of them." I'm gonna say a 140lb "weedy" guy is probably not quite 6", which means the op is probably under 5'6" so…yeah, stocky.

        • http://twitter.com/brianmtaylor Brian Taylor

          also, she has at least one daughter in Double Indemnity's Phyllis Dietrich – Rita Hayworth in a cheap, platinum blonde wig.

          I think at least some of this is using a "tawdry" woman less to create her as a character and more to characterize the men and the town. Poisonville ain't San Francisco…

          But then again, there's also an argument that the femme fatale is a woman with agency in a world (both the world of the story and also the world of mass publishing aimed at men) that doesn't usually allow for it. Which is why she has to be dangerous, because she's not just sitting around passively, waiting for the men to move the plot along.

          • http://twitter.com/Carachan1 @Carachan1

            You could say femme fatales have 'agency' in that they are allowed to take part in the 'action', but really because they are so sexualised and objectified, they are always treated as suspicious by every party – not even limited to the men in the stories but the madonna trope females as well. In Hammett's Maltese Falcon, Effie Perine is clearly the woman Spade trusts, but O'Shaughnessy is the one he wants to screw. Which turns out to be the most dangerous?

            It is also interesting to note that femme fatales tend to carry out their heinous 'actions' mostly behind the scenes, as if it's not quite realistic that any woman would perpetrate a crime – but because she is a 'slut' we want to believe it of her. The actual presence of action is restricted to men.

          • http://twitter.com/brianmtaylor Brian Taylor

            Now I totally want to argue that women have to do their dirty work "off camera" because it's the only time they're not locked as objects of the gaze…but we're far from Dinah now.

      • http://twitter.com/brianmtaylor Brian Taylor

        I think I'll need a whiskey first.

        • http://twitter.com/brianmtaylor Brian Taylor

          what the hell, this was supposed to – oh, nevermind. Uhm.

          So I just found out that this book was originally four separate short stories published in Black Mask, which explained the episodic feel that the book has.

          • Stu Horvath

            That is really interesting! Where are the cuts? The original case, with Wilsson's son, the boxing fix, the case with the Chief's brother and then, what, the end bit?

            I imagine that means the Laudanum chapter and the ensuing dream sequence were added later?

          • http://twitter.com/brianmtaylor Brian Taylor

            OH MY GOD I forgot about the Laudanum chapter. Or, as I like to call it, The Entire Reason Max Payne's Drug/Dream Sequences Exist (CARA, THOUGHTS?)

            According to the wikipedia entry for The Continental Op:

            Stories republished as Red Harvest

            "The Cleansing of Poisonville" (Black Mask, November 1927)
            "Crime Wanted – Male or Female" (Black Mask, December 1927)
            "Dynamite" (Black Mask, January 1928)
            "The 19th Murder" (Black Mask, February 1928)

            Dynamite would probably be the prison break?

          • Stu Horvath

            How on earth did you forget about Laudanum? It is the height of the book!

            Yea, those titles are vague enough to completely confuse me. Google, to me!

          • http://twitter.com/brianmtaylor Brian Taylor

            I'm shocked you don't have a complete collection of Black Mask.

          • Stu Horvath

            Is this how this thread is going to perish? Taunts?

          • Stu Horvath

            From the Library of America: "Red Harvest first appeared as four "novelettes" in Black Mask: "The Cleaning of Poisonville" (November 1927), "Crime Wanted (Male or Female" (December 1927), "Dynamite" (January 1928), and "The 19th Murder" (February 1928). On February 11, 1928, Hammett sent a typescript of the novel, then titled "Poisonville," to Alfred A. Knopf in New York. Blanche Knopf quickly expressed an interest in publishing the book, on the condition that Hammett make substantial revisions. Hammett agreed to most of her suggestions and rejected others, and he made smaller verbal changes in collaboration with Harry Block, a Knopf editor who would work with Hammett on all five of his novels."

  • http://twitter.com/jaypullman @jaypullman

    The Peace Conference (19) and Laudanum (20) were my favorite pair of chapters because my impression of the Op during the roundtable is that he's the ultimate trickster. He's got everyone's number (except Reno, at that point) and just lays the cards out on the table for everyone to fight over. The result is utter chaos. Noonan is PROPER fucked by the end of it, and Whisper doesn't even stick around for a formal dismissal (probably a smart move). The Op completely dismantles any existing or potential alliances among the group. I loved Hammett's description of the all the players sitting very still because "Nobody could count on having any friends among those present. It was no time for careless motions on anyone's part." And yeah, the irony of naming that chapter "The Peace Conference" is pretty great.

    Then in the next chapter when he recounts the meeting to Dinah (before the Max Payne dream sequence), the Op explains how he had Noonan on the ropes with Whisper and Reno pitted against each other, and BOTH of them against Pete the Finn. He then utters probably my favorite line in the entire book:

    "So everybody sat around and behaved and watched everybody else while I juggled death and destruction."

    At this point, it becomes pretty unclear whether the Op's fighting the good fight, or just plain fighting. To me, it signified a sudden and steep moral drop-off point for him where it previously felt like more of a slow dive. It's a big turning point, for all of the characters, really. The dominos have been set up and it's all one big chain reaction of booze, blood and betrayal from that point on.