Review of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest
A Noir Tale of Corruption and Justice
Originally hired by a social crusader named Donald Willsson, the Continental Op who narrates the novel discovers his employer to be murdered and the city of Personville to be steeped in corruption. The narrator extracts a promise from a wealthy industrialist, old Elihu Willsson, to solve the murder and cleanse the town, rescuing it from all the gangsters Elihu brought in to fight against the same kind of champions for social justice like his son was.
Disgusted that the town lives up to its nickname of Poisonville, the narrator sets out on a campaign of street-level investigation and disinformation to learn all he can about the criminal groups in town, including the crooked police force, and set them all against one another in a series of violent episodes that even manage to draw in the Continental Op and cast suspicion on his role in several incidents, including the murder of an informant. As the trouble escalates, the narrator finds himself in the crossfire of a gang war he helped instigate and that he must see through to its bloody conclusion in order to prove himself innocent as well as rescue the town from the greed and violence that threatens to destroy any hope of a future for the citizens.
Population of Poisonville
On the surface, the novel is a thrilling noir action yarn brimming not only with intrigue and secrets but also with Hammett’s trademark witty dialogue and stripped down style that set the standard for American hard-boiled detective fiction. While it deals with traditional noir elements such as the fickle and self-serving femme fatale, Dinah Brand, and the extent of social corruption, as in the case of Police Chief Noonan, the actual mystery that kicks off the story is solved by the midpoint, leaving the rest of the book to work out the implications of the narrator’s efforts to rescue to town from the criminals who control it.
At What Price?
There is still a deeper theme that works as a novel-long exploration of the cost of order and justice. It starts with Elihu’s gambit to keep control of Personville by using thugs and gangsters that quickly escape the limits of his authority, causing him to lose his town and his son. He sits as a classic example of a man who tries to hold on to everything and in doing so has it all slip from his grasp. A more interesting case is that of the narrator, where the audience watches his quest for justice require threats, double-dealing, physical violence, and setting up fair-weather allies for situations he knows will lead them into harm and possibly death.
In a long, reflective scene the narrator wonders about the ethics of his deeds and about his stated goal. How can he say he’s working toward justice when his methods are unscrupulous? At one level he blames the longstanding culture of corruption in Personville, claiming, “It’s this damned burg. You can’t go straight here” (154). Considering his attempts to solve the town’s ills, he says, “it’s easier to have them killed off, easier and surer, and, now that I’m feeling this way, more satisfying. I don’t know how I’m going to come out with the Agency” (157). While he understands the effectiveness of his actions and can admit to enjoying it at some level, he also expresses misgivings as to the consequences for Personville and for what it means for him as a law enforcer and a human being. This philosophical dilemma underpins every action in the novel, and echoes of it can still be found in contemporary media such as Batman: Dark Knight where Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) comments on the Joker, “I see now what I’d have to become to stop men like him.” Both protagonists struggle against slipping too deeply into the same criminality they’ve sworn to oppose.
Called to Violence
Red Harvest is an excellent read for fans of crime fiction, stories of moral conflict, fans of Dashiell Hammett’s more popular works—such as the Maltese Falcon—and anyone interested in terse, stylized American prose from the early 20th century. Red Harvest and other works by Hammett are known as major influences on filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, and elements of it can be seen in his movies like Yojimbo. The plot moves along at a fast pace, and the characters, particularly the narrator and Dinah Brand, are consistently engaging.
Hammett, Dashiell. Red Harvest. New York: Vintage Crime / Black Lizard. 1992.
© 2011 Seth Tomko