James Thane's Reviews > Red Harvest

Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett
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Mar 23, 2010

it was amazing
bookshelves: crime-fiction
Read in June, 2012

Originally published in 1929, Red Harvest is a classic crime novel that helped established the hard-boiled genre. This is most definitely not a polite, parlor mystery where most of the blood is spilled off of the page. As the title suggests, this book is filled with mayhem and the bodies are falling left and right.

The main protagonist is the Continental Op, who doesn't remotely resemble the genteel Hercule Poirot or any of the other fictional detectives who were so popular in the 1920s. The Op is certainly smart and skilled, but he's a squat, overweight man who's more than willing to cut whatever corners are necessary in order to achieve what he believes to be the greater good.

The Op, who is employed by the Continental Detective Agency in San Francisco, is detailed to the Personville, a mining town known to most as Poisonville. The town was, for a long time, under the thumb of Elihu Willsson who owned the Personville Mining Corporation, the local newspapers, and a number of other businesses as well. He also controlled all of the politicians of any consequence, up to and including the state governor.

During the First World War, Willsson had made whatever deals were necessary with the miners' unions to ensure that the company's operations were unimpeded. But once the war ended, he determined to break the unions and in doing so, invited in a number of thugs and crooks to assist him. The unions were effectively cowed, but the thugs and crooks stayed in town and carved out interests for themselves, effectively reducing Willsson's authority.

As the book opens, Elihu's son, Donald, has asked the Continental Detective Agency for assistance. Elihu has now turned the town's newspapers over to his son and the son is something of a reformer. But before the Op can even meet with Donald, Donald is murdered. The Op believes that it is his obligation to identify the killer. As he attempts to do so, old Elihu Willsson offers the Op $10,000.00 to clean up Personville. In reality, he wants to get rid of the gangs that are competing for control of the town so that he can dominate it unchallenged once again.

The Op is repulsed by the level of corruption in the town and by Elihu himself. But he decides to take the job so that he can indulge his own desire to clean up the town and cleverly drafts his agreement with Willsson to effectively give himself carte blanche, even if Willsson should ultimately change his mind about turning the Op loose on the problem.

The plot that unfolds is dense and convoluted, but the strength of the book lies in Hammett's prose style, in the characters he develops, and in picture he paints of Personville. As a practical matter, there is not a single moral, selfless person in the entire town, the Continental Op included. He quickly proves that he's ready to get down in the muck with the croooks, grafters and corrupt city officials and do whatever is necessary to complete the quest he's assigned himself.

As a young man, Hammett had worked as a detective for the Pinkerton agency in San Francisco and had spent some time during the war in the mining town of Butte, Montana as a strikebreaker. People have long speculated that "Poisonville" was modeled on Butte, a company town controlled by the Anaconda Mining Company. People have also speculated about Hammett's motives for writing the book, suggesting that he might have been seeking some redemption for the actions he had taken in Butte. Whatever the case, the result is a seminal work that stands as one of the great classics of American crime fiction and that has influenced scores of writers who have attempted to follow in Hammett's footsteps.
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05/23/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-16 of 16) (16 new)

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message 1: by Dan (new) - rated it 4 stars

Dan Schwent (view spoiler)

I really have to re-read this.


James Thane Yeah. (view spoiler)


message 3: by Dan (new) - rated it 4 stars

Dan Schwent James wrote: "Yeah. [spoilers removed]"

That's the worst.


message 4: by An Odd1 (new)

An Odd1 Ouch. Am I sorry I peaked at the spoilers. How you guys make those books sound so intriguing that are guaranteed to give me nightmares ...


James Thane Sorry about that! Actually, the scene is probably not as bad as it might seem from the comments we passed back and forth. There is a fair amount of violence in this book, but it's really not of the stomach-turning variety...


message 6: by An Odd1 (last edited Nov 23, 2012 04:48PM) (new)

An Odd1 I just finished "The Burglar's Fate and the Detectives" by Allan Pinkerton, owner of the real agency, hired sons and others across U.S. True story of bank robbery in small western town of Geneva. Free at gutenberg.org http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...

Doyle's Sherlock Holmes "Study in Scarlet" and "Valley of Fear" are both based on real events. Valley of Fear is Vermissa Valley, coal-mining area in US west, where Freeman Lodge 341 murders and extorts innocent citizens. McMurdo is from Pinkerton. http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...


James Thane Thanks. The Pinkerton book sounds especially interesting.


message 8: by Harry (new) - added it

Harry Great review, James. Again, I've not read this author. On my TBR.


James Thane I think you'll like him, Harry. Along with Chandler, he helped redefine the genre back in the day. My favorite of his is The Maltese Falcon, but he wrote some great short stories too that are available in collections here and there.


message 10: by Jim (last edited Dec 06, 2013 02:40PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jim Crocker Jon Jackson taught a class on Hammet at University of Montana a few years back. We just poured over Red Harvest.

Yunno, aside from being a "happening place" back in the day, Butte was a real cesspool of a place. Anaconda, too. The air pollution and ground water pollution was beyond belief with people dropping dead in their tracks from it in the street. Think about China today!

There are areas downwind from the Anaconda smelters that are stone dead even today. The ground is just white and nothing grows. Then there's the giant open pit in Butte. It's filling with acidic water that is so toxic that birds are killed the instant they touch it. Eventually this water will start spilling out. It one of the top Superfund sites in America. After it's all said and done, the rest of us are left with the mess to deal with. These costs were never part of the equation.


James Thane I love how they hired Jack Nicklaus to turn part of the Anaconda Superfund site into a championship golf course and used the black slag instead of sand in the bunkers!


message 12: by Cathy (new) - added it

Cathy DuPont Great review, Jim. I read "The Maltese Falcon" which was excellent and look forward to reading this one.


James Thane Thanks, Cathy. Hope you enjoy it.


Ɗắɳ  2.✽ Nice review, James. So are you suggesting that The Maltese Falcon is better than this one? Does it have that same great prose style? If so, I should probably add it to my tbr posthaste.


James Thane Ɗắɳ 2.☠ wrote: "Nice review, James. So are you suggesting that The Maltese Falcon is better than this one? Does it have that same great prose style? If so, I should probably add it to my tbr posthaste."

Thanks, Dan. As much as I like this book, The Maltese Falcon has always been one of my all-time favorite novels. Personally I like it better, although others may differ. Certainly, though, I would think that any fan of crime fiction would want to read Falcon at some point.


Ɗắɳ  2.✽ Well, I did enjoy this one slightly more than The Big Sleep. The dialog is really great in both of those stories, but the plots are a bit of a mess. I'm not a big crime fiction/private eye fan in general, but I suppose you're right, I probably should read Falcon at some point.


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