Monday, November 19, 2018
Red Harvest: Review
"Plans are all right sometimes," I said. "And sometimes just stirring things up is all right--if you're tough enough to survive, and keep your eyes open so you'll see what you want when it comes to the top." ~The Continental Op in
Red Harvest (1929) by Dashiell Hammett
Newspaper publisher, Donald Willsson calls on the Continental Detective Agency to send an operative to his town of Personville (known colloquially as "Poisonville"). Our unnamed narrator, known forevermore as The Continental Op, arrives in town without any briefing on what Willsson wants. He's told that he'll find out once he meets Willsson at his home. But Willsson isn't at the house and his wife doesn't know where he is. She gets a phone call, runs off without a word, comes back some time later with what looks like bloodstains on her shoes, and announces that Donald won't be coming home that night. The Op isn't too shocked to find out that Willsson is dead.
Willsson's father Elihu has, until recently, owned the town. But when a strike threatened his businesses, Elihu brought in professional strong men to break the strike and those men decided they like the looks of Personville and hung around. Elihu is still the nominal big man, but he has to kowtow to the gangs when they say so. Donald was trying to stir up support to clean up the town through his paper and when The Op visits the elder Willsson a deal is struck (with a signed contract and all) that the Continental Detective Agency will clean up the town.
After a lot of people (and I do mean a LOT) are killed (and Elihu tries to cancel the deal), the town is cleaned up and Elihu is back in control. But Elihu Willsson may not like the state of his town once The Op is finished with it.
So....this is SO not my thing. Hard-boiled, noir is in general not my thing. But I loved The Maltese Falcon. And I enjoy small doses of Brett Halliday's Michael Shayne. But Red Harvest is really not my thing--this is noir at its blackest and grittiest. This is hard-boiled so hard it's turned to stone. There are bodies everywhere. There are double- and triple- and quadruple-crosses. There are huge shoot-outs between the gangs and the police (who have gang ties of their own).
The saving grace? Hammett knows how to write. Even though I'm not happy with what I'm reading, he makes it go down nice (though I'm not sure "nice" is exactly the right word here...). The Op may take extreme measures to get the job done. He may not operate within a particularly palatable set of rules--but reading about his exploits and his interactions with various characters is entertaining. The plot line is a bit convoluted (what with all the double- and triple- and so-on-crossing and all)--otherwise I would have have rated this classic in the hard-boiled realm higher. ★★★ If you like noir and hard-boiled detectives, then this is definitely your thing.