Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Dashiell Hammett - Red Harvest

I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shroit. I didn't think anything of what he'd done to the city's name. later I heard men who could manage their r's give it the same pronunciation. I still didn't see anything in it but the  meaningless sort of humor that used to make richardsnary the thieves' word for dictionary. A few years later I went to Personville and learned better. (p. 3)

Dashiell Hammett's ground breaking Red Harvest is the first book by one of the grandmasters of Noir, and it might surprise you to learn that the iconic opening paragraph quoted above is probably the book's wordiest section. Hammett writes chaos and crime with all surplus and emotion excised, and the power that slips in through the spaces is awe inspiring. The book may have come out in 1929, but its every sentence hits with incredible strength today, and the picture it paints is no less relevant and no less terrifying than it ever was.

Our opening is a rather standard crime beginning: our detective – the unnamed Continental Op – goes to the home of the man who hired him. The man's not home, so the wife greets out protagonist, but she's called out. When she returns, her lift slipper is dark and damp with something that could be blood. (p. 8) Unfazed, she tells the Continental Op that her husband "won't be home tonight." (p. 8) Within only a few pages, that initial murder is almost lost in an explosion of corruption and violence. Personville is not plagued by a single problem but is, rather, an entire town of avarice, a cesspit incapable of viewing order as anything but oppression from a new source.

The Continental Op strides into this urban hell and burns it to the ground. Well, okay, no – the town's still standing at the end of the book. But you'd be forgiven for doubting that at more than a few of the book's apocalyptic gunfights and revelations. Much of noir seems to focus on understatement and small scale conflict. David Goodis's The Wounded and the Slain, for instance, shows the inherent corruption and malleability of humanity through a single nobody's accidental misadventure in the backstreets of Jamaica, an episode unlikely to so much as make the local paper. Hammett approaches the same thematic stomping ground from the opposite direction. Red Harvest is larger than life and archetypical, a tale of amoral justice writ in blood across the streets of a city boasting "some forty thousand inhabitants." (p. 70)

In terms of stark brutality, Red Harvest is on par with modern classics like Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. Reading the book, it's not hard to see how French existentialists and others view the novel as an allegory for order first coming to mankind. Such biblical aspirations, amusingly enough, fit perfectly with Hammett's terseness, and comparisons abound: the Continental Op is bringing law to the citizens of Personville at the behest of the far off but all powerful "Old Man" while the citizens desperately cling to their decadent lawlessness.

That being said, such black and white readings have trouble in the face of the humanity and ambiguity of Hammett's characters. Though Hammett's narration never leaves the Continental Op's perspective, we're never allowed inside his head, and the characters actions are as much a mystery to us as they are to the townspeople until he chooses to explain himself. The benefits of this – competently executed – on a mechanical level are obvious, allowing the Continental Op to surprise the reader as much as his adversaries with his deductions and actions. On a thematic level, however, things get even more interesting.

Corruption in Personville is not something that can be fought with law or morals. As the Continental Op says to a fellow operative: Anybody that brings any ethics to Poisonville is going to get them all rusty (p. 117). But death becomes seductive, and the Continental Op soon seems to pursue chaos for its own sake, preferring the grace of a bullet to the difficulties of the courtroom. The crux of Personville's corruption of him, however, comes near the end of the book.

[Note: skip to the next paragraph to aovid SPOILERS] After a series of traumatizing and horrific dreams, the Continental Op finds himself abed with a murdered woman, and it's his hand upon the ice pick. Did he kill her? Even the Continental Op cannot answer that question, but he's forced to proceed under the assumption – one that the world around him wholly believes – that he was, in fact, the murderer. In the end, it turns out that one of the book's many villains was the true culprit, but the message is still clear. We're all skirting corruption; we've all got our hands on the handle of the ice pick. And the only thing that decides who shoves it in deep is mere happenstance.

Red Harvest functions as a laconic fever dream. Short chapters and shorter sentences, an absence of description and inner monologues, and characters forced to survive day after day on fortifying alcohol instead of sleep all contribute to a book and a life impossible to escape. Amidst all the grimness, the Continental Op's sense of humor is so bald faced you might not notice the joke until a second glance. As he says to one foe: Be still while I get up or I'll make an opening in your head for brains to leak in. (p. 97)

Detective fiction is an inherently goal oriented genre, and Hammett makes use of small story arcs to build his big picture. Having the Continental Op battle all of Personville at once would be impossible from the perspective of the reader's comprehension as well as narrative coherence, so Hammett breaks the Continental Op's war down into increasingly large scale chunks as the operative goes after one or two of the city's villains at a time amidst a network of shifting alliances.

Hammett's tautness can, at times, cause problems. The central characters are never deep in the traditional sense, but they each grow fascinating as the novel progresses. Those in the periphery, however, aren't given this chance, which leaves Lew Yard and Pete the Finn, among others, as nothing but names and vague outlines. There is also the occasional passage where the prose misses vividness and instead falls into uninvolving summary. At one point, for instance, a climactic fight scene is described as:

Noise and fire came out under a window sill.

The gray mustached detective fell down, hiding the axe under his corpse.

The rest of us ran away. (p. 121)

Red Harvest is a Crime classic that roars from the first page to the last. I started the book in an idle five minutes and finished it in the early morning hours of the next day – horrified, disgusted, and too charged with energy to sleep for hours yet. If you're a Noir devotee or have yet to read so much as a page of the genre, Red Harvest is an absolutely essential novel.


  1. Gee, you mean the sentences are actually shorter than the chapters they appear in? Maybe you should try reviewing a book a month, and spend more time proofreading and shaping things up.

  2. Exactly! As I am sure you are aware, were the sentences longer, they would have to be split midway through by chapter breaks, and that would just seem clumsy. I wanted to warn my dumber readers that this was not the case and, as you so cleverly understood, I think we can both say you certainly aren't a fool. Incase I am wrong about that, however, I would suggest the following reference: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/hyperbole?r=75&src=ref&ch=dic