Monday, November 7, 2011

Enter the Man with No Name: Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest

Hammett, Dashiell. Red Harvest

Reviewed by Walter Giersbach

“Red Harvest,” Dashiell Hammett’s first published novel (in 1929), reveals a world of venality, mayhem and revenge that set the tone for detective novels half a century into the future.

A Continental Detective Agency Op is summoned from California to “Poisonville,” Mont. by aged newspaper owner and banker Elihu Willsson. Elihu’s criminal enterprise of imported thugs threatens to turn on him. The aged banker gives the Op enough of information to let our nameless narrator work his way through a host of evil-doers: Bill Quint, an affable old IWW member; corrupt police chief Noonan; greedy Dinah Brand, who has scandalous information on everyone; jealous bank clerk Robert Albury; hoodlum Max “Whisper” Thaler; and other evil-doers who run the town and its rackets. The first question is “Who killed Elihu’s son?”

The Op sets about pitting the factions against each other, saying, “Plans are all right sometimes. And sometimes just stirring things up is all right.” This “stir-it-up novel” is filled with offhanded shootings, explosions, and murder by ice pick. The carnage is colorfully expressed in passages where the Op says, “We bumped over dead Hank O'Meara's legs and headed for home” and “Be still while I get up or I'll make an opening in your head for brains to leak in.”

Don’t expect plausibility, but do look for the snappy dialogue, strong characters (especially in the Op), and writing style that moves fast. Time magazine included “Red Harvest” in its list of the 100 best English-language novels from 1922 to 2005. Literary critic Andre Gide also called the novel “the last word in atrocity, cynicism and horror.”

Hammett’s “Red Harvest” has given us a sub-genre of the crime/adventure/detective novel that might be termed “the man with no name.” “Red Harvest” can lay claim to being the successor to the classic Western — not the Sherlock Holmes “whodunit.” The novel’s amazing power and plotting led movie director Akira Kurosawa to create “Yojimbo,” focusing on a freelance samurai who confronts town’s warring factions. Look for thematic vestiges of Hammett’s novel also in Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti Westerns” with Clint Eastwood and in John Sturges’s “The Magnificent Seven.” “Red Harvest” is the novel that started an epic genre.

See your library or favorite book seller for Red Harvest and other books by Dashiell Hammett

No comments: