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Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett

Red Harvest (1929)

by Dashiell Hammett

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2,191624,293 (3.85)138
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Published in 1929, Red Harvest is the first of five classic novels written by Dashiell Hammett, inventor of the "hard-boiled" school of fiction. Since there are dozens of reviews already posted here, I will take a different slant, citing how quotes from nineteenth century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche apply to the novel’s unnamed main character/narrator, a man simply known as "Continental Op" and the city where the novel is located, Personville aka Poisonville, a dingy mining city of 40,000 squeezed between two Northern California mountains.

“Without music, life would be a mistake.”
There isn’t one reference to music in the entire novel. Not surprising, since, from the perspective of music and the arts, this grimy berg run by gangsters, bootleggers, crooked cops and gritty thugs could be considered one colossal mistake. Of course, I’m not entirely serious, but imagining a Personville String Quartet playing an evening of Mozart at the town’s public building would be belly-laughable. Not laughable, that is, for the townspeople, who would probably protest such music by riddling the musicians with bullets after playing the first few bars of their Mozart.

“He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”
The Continental Op is a private detective for a national agency; he’s insulted, double-crossed, and has to listen to the lies and cons from the city’s sleazy power-boys as well as dodge unending gunfire. All in a day’s work as he goes about seeking revenge for being set up to be bumped off by Noonan, the fat chief-of-police. Such a ‘why ‘and ‘how’ is the stuff of Hammett’s riveting story.

“The best enemy against an enemy is another enemy.”
This Nietzsche quote could have been used by Hammett as the novel’s epigraph. The Continental Op sets gangsters, bootleggers, professional thieves, police and politicians all against one another. The result? Too many dead bodies to count. With dozens and dozens of murders, Red Harvest qualifies as a 200 page blood bath. But, please don’t be put off by all the blood; fortunately, for lovers of great literature, this is great literature. Always good to keep in mind many works of great literature, for example The Iliad and Richard III are chock full of blood.

“Ah, women. They make the highs higher and the lows more frequent.”
Meet Poinsonville’s femme fatale: Dinah Brand. If you are a man and would like to pick lead out of your belly, hang around Dinah. Here is the Continental Op’s reflections on meeting Ms. Brand for the first time, “She was an inch or two taller than I, which made her about five feet eight. She had a broad-shouldered, full-breasted, round-hipped body and big muscular legs. The hand she gave me was soft, warm, strong. Her face was the face of a girl of twenty-five already showing signs of wear. Little lines crossed the corners of her big ripe mouth. Fainter lines were beginning to make nets around her thick-lashed eyes. They were large eyes, blue and a bit blood-shot. Her coarse hair--brown--needed trimming and was parted crookedly. One side of her upper lip had been rouged higher than the other. Her dress was of a particularly unbecoming wine color, and it gaped here and there down one side, where she had neglected to snap the fasteners or they had popped open. There was a run down the front of her left stocking.”

"He who fights with monsters must take care lest he thereby become a monster.”
Here is a quote from the Continental Op after taking the necessary steps in starting to clean up the city for his double-crossing client, old Elihu Willsson. "Look. I sat at Willsson's table tonight and played them like you'd play trout, and got just as much fun out of it. I looked at Noonan and knew he hadn't a chance in a thousand of living another day because of what I had done to him, and I laughed, and felt warm and happy inside. That's not me. I've got hard skin all over what's left of my soul, and after twenty years of messing around with crime I can look at any sort of a murder without seeing anything in it but my bread and butter, the day's work. But this getting a rear out of planning deaths is not natural to me. It's what this place has done to me." The Continental Op knows the truth of Nietzsche’s words from his own first-hand experience.

“Of all that is written, I love only what a person has written with his own blood.”
Dashiell Hammett spent some years with the Pinkerton agency as a detective. He had his first-hand Poisonville-like experience in Butte, Montana where he probably had occasion to see his own blood flow in the line of service. So, if there ever was a book that could have been written with the author’s own blood, Red Harvest is that book.

( )
  Glenn_Russell | Nov 13, 2018 |
Excellent book. Hammett writes in a manner that's just like dangling a carrot in front of a donkey-- he gives you enough information to keep going, but keeps you in the dark just the right amount. This book was hard to put down. The names got a little confusing at times (a lot of characters), but overall it was pretty simple to keep up with what was happening. I'm glad I finally got around to reading this book! ( )
  Borrows-N-Wants | Sep 22, 2018 |
It was okay, okay? Not bad. I'll say a few words and then close my yap. Lots of action - no problem with that - but too many peoples gettin' whacked that I don't care nuttin about, see? And this dame, let me tell ya, she makes duck soup outta most joes but I wadn't buyin' it. The ways I see it, the main detective guy would've been room temp at least a dozen times before the end. But who's gonna write the rotten thing if he don't live? ( )
  ReneEldaBard | Jul 3, 2018 |
There's nothing like a Dashiell Hammett turn of phrase. "She looked as if she were telling the truth, though with women, especially blue-eyed women, that doesn't always mean anything."

Truth be told, though, Red Harvest is not my favorite Dashiell Hammett by a long shot. It is a twisted, complicated, confusing story that probably could have used better editing to reduce the 216 pages to somewhere around 150. The Continental Op is asked to come to Personville (aka Poisonville) by the editor of the newspaper. Simultaneous to his arrival, his client is shot to death. So now the Continental Op has a murder investigation on his hands.

The town has been over run with the criminal element (thus the moniker Poisonville) who now rules. The Continental Op feels he must clean up the town and in doing so there is murder galore. The phrase at the beginning of this review is one of only a few memorable descriptions whereas Hammett's short stories typically have more.

Red Harvest is OK...not Hammett at his best, however. ( )
  EdGoldberg | Nov 27, 2017 |
"Red Harvest” was originally published in serial form in 1927 and 1928 and published as a novel in 1929. It is Hammett’s first novel involving the Continental Op and it is dark, gloomy, and as hardboiled as it gets. There are other hardboiled novels that feature a detective or other person coming into a corrupt town and trying to solve a murder when no one wants to help him and every hand is turned against him, but many such novels by Spillane, MacDonald, and Latimer came a decade or two after Red Harvest. What’s remarkable about this novel is how tough, how unyielding, and how hardnosed it was. It all takes place in “Personville” which the narrator describes as “Poisonville,” the ugliest town ever imagined both physically and metaphorically and even the dames in it are as hardboiled as they come, particularly Dinah, the toughest talking femme fatale ever imagined. This was one of the novels that ushered in the hardboiled era of detective writing. ( )
  DaveWilde | Sep 22, 2017 |
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To Joseph Thompson Shaw
First words
I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte.
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Disambiguation notice
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Book description
Haiku summary
Personville poisoned
Hero pits all against all
Hardboiled cleansing

Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0679722610, Paperback)

When the last 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.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:09:39 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

When a hard-fighting detective arrives in Personville and finds that his client has been murdered, he decides to investigate local gangland activities.

» see all 3 descriptions

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