- By Dashiell Hammett
- First published: USA: Alfred A. Knopf, 1929
We waited a moment, and then Pete the Finn appeared in the dynamited doorway, his hands holding the top of his bald head. In the glare from the burning next-door house we could see that his face was cut, his clothes almost all torn off.
Stepping over wreckage, the bootlegger came slowly down the steps to the sidewalk.
Reno called him a lousy fish-eater and shot him four times in face and body.
Pete went down. A man behind me laughed.
Reno hurled the remaining bomb through the doorway.
We scrambled into our car. Reno took the wheel. The engine was dead. Bullets had got to it.
Red Harvest is a book from the red-light district, a bordel of violence. At least 22 people are killed in its blood-soaked pages. Most are gunned down; a couple are done in with an ice-pick. ‘Poisonville’ is not a pleasant place.
Red Harvest was the ex-Pinkerton P.I.’s first novel, originally serialized in four parts in Black Mask (1927–1928). The book was well received at the time on both sides of the Atlantic; since then, it has been listed among Time’s 100 Best English-Language Novels from 1923 to 2005; the Crime Writers’ Association’s Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time; and the Mystery Writers of America’s Top 100 Mystery Novels of All Time.
But the plot is poorly constructed, and Hammett glorifies violence and vigilantism. Avoid.
Red Harvest is a senseless blizzard of pistol bullets and machine guns, speeding cars and gang wars. The characters are tough guys and greedy dames, mobsters, bootleggers, grifters and gamblers. The “last honest citizen” is an ineffectual civil reformer, murdered before the story begins. Everyone tries to bump off everyone else; the number of murders is bewildering, and we don’t care about any of the deaths. There’s no logic or inevitability; these killings just seem arbitrary. Characters like the attorney Dawn appear and are killed two pages later. Minor characters like the gangster Reno appear late in the book, and suddenly become significant. And the “detective” is a monster.
“Your fat chief of police tried to assassinate me last night. I don’t like that. I’m just mean enough to want to ruin him for it. Now I’m going to have my fun. I’ve got ten thousand dollars of your money to play with. I’m going to use it opening Poisonville up from Adam’s apple to ankles. I’ll see that you get my reports as regularly as possible. I hope you enjoy them.”
The prose is functional at best: terse, abrupt, staccato, like the rat-tat-tat of a machine gun. But it doesn’t flow.
Admirers praise Red Harvest for its depiction of corruption and violence, for its realism, its atrocity, and its cynicism, as though these are praiseworthy. There is nothing admirable in Red Harvest; it is a barbarous bloodbath, its worldview nihilistic and anti-democratic. Civilisation is rotten, and law and order are corrupt. The bosses control the courts, the police chief uses the cops as his private army, and most of the cops can be bought. The hero is the vigilante, even tougher and more murderous than the cops and the mobsters. The solution to violent crime is to be even more violent. “Don’t kid yourselves that there’s any law in Poisonville except what you make for yourself.” Take the law into your own hands, topple the lawmakers, and kill. Ninety years later, vigilantes storm the U.S. Capitol.
Red Harvest later inspired a Japanese samurai film (Yojimbo, 1961), a spaghetti Western (A Fistful of Dollars, 1964), and two films by the Coen Brothers. It is also to blame for Mickey Spillane, Quentin Tarantino, Sin City, and other trash of that ilk.
As Hammett himself acknowledged: “I’ve been as bad an influence on American literature as anyone I can think of.” We can’t disagree.
Personville was bad, so bad, in fact, that its citizens quite casually called it Poisonville. It was a name that stuck, for the chief of police and his crowd were a shade worse than the gang factions that made it a seething cauldron of hate and greed. In a moment of panic, the town’s big boss hires an operative of the Continental Detective Agency to rid him of his gunmen. When the “op” arrives, Poisonville is ripe for the harvest. This is the story of its cleaning up. With the aid of a woman who knew Poisonville’s underworld through intimate association and whose watchword was “gimme”, he plays faction against faction, literally busts the town wide open, leads it into a frenzy of murders and killings and in the end hands it back to the boss a smouldering ember of its former self.
Here is an extraordinary tale of gunmen, murder, gin and gangsters, told in fast, clear, hard-boiled language that sweeps you off your feet with its speed – it is a tale as modern as yesterday’s gun-fight.
Herbert Asbury: The liveliest detective story that has been published in a decade.
The New York Times: It is a fast-stepping melodramatic tale, told in choice underworld vernacular by the sleuth himself, a book which we recommend as fiction … of a genuinely fresh and entertaining quality.
The Cleveland Plain Dealer: Here is the best of a batch of current detective stories and mysteries thrillers. It is the best because it is so startlingly original. There has never been a detective story like it.
The Outlook: When it is written by a man who plainly knows his underworld and can make it come alive for his readers, when the action is exciting, and the conversation racy and amusing – well, you’ll want to read it. … We recommend this one without reservation. We gave it A plus before we’d finished the first chapter.
Birmingham Post: This is a very good essay in crime fiction. The author has a cleanly finished style and writes clearly and without striving for effect; indeed, his effects seem almost casual, and only as the results appear do we realise how cleverly they have been worked into the narrative. The story concerns a small American town whose urban politics are in a more than usually degenerate condition. A detective is hired by the chief “boss” and instructed to clean away the criminal element. The boss is himself involved in many pernicious dealings and soon tries to withdraw the detective; but the latter determines to carry out the commission and proceeds to set the gang at each other’s throats. … We commend to the fans of crime fiction this short, heavy, middle-aged detective.