“Who shot him? I asked. The grey man scratched the back of his neck and said: Somebody with a gun.”
Some years ago, thanks in main to the literary preferences of then-Afghan Whigs frontman Greg Dulli, I embarked on a lengthy hardboiled crime fiction kick. Starting with James Ellroy’s LA Quartet I worked my way through the cream of the modern noir fiction while also taking time to dip into Raymond Chandler to see where it began. For some reason though, Dashiell Hammett, equally if not more influential, never landed on my reading list. Not until recently when an article on the greatest antiheroes ever surfaced on sci-fi blog io9. This list was naturally predominated by space-pirates and their ilk, but there in the middle lay Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett. This was as sure a sign as any that I had ignored him too long.
The protagonist of Red Harvest, incidentally Hammett’s first novel, is such a quintessential antihero that he doesn’t even have a name. Representing the Continental Detective Agency, he’s an anonymous rogue element sent into the town of Personville (aka Poisonville) to get to the bottom of a recent murder. Before long he realises that Personville is a foul open sore of a town. The key players vying for control of their tiny, inconsequential turf care only about how much power they can muster, apparently all suffering from severe cases of small-dick syndrome. It’s remarkable how little time it takes for the Continental Op to become utterly sickened with the petty internal politics of the town and begin to clean house. What begins as a simple detective story soon descends into a beautifully amoral tale of double-crosses, revenge and buckets of blood.
The inhabitants of Personville are all larger-than-life dirtbags, par for the course in the noir world. All of them are armed to the teeth axes to grind, skeletons in their closets and scores to settle. Their mutual obsession with respect, control and power makes it all too easy for the Op to inveigle his way into their confidences. Little by little he spins a masterful web of half-truths and distortions such that each of his transgressions is immediately seized upon by his prey as evidence of a grand conspiracy against them. Where’s there’s smoke there’s gunfire and once the body count starts mounting there’s no respite to be had. The criminal elements of Personville need little encouragement to do the Op’s job for him.
Red Harvest is a revenge fantasy par excellence. Of course it can be read simply as the noir yarn it is on the surface and it will be enjoyed greatly. But try reading it while thinking a little about the world you inhabit. Bring to mind those politicians lining their pockets while stripping yours bare. Think a little about your bosses and their bosses. About the lady who cut in front of you in the checkout line or the guy who stole your parking spot. About the girl/guy who cheated on you/scratched your favourite CD/forgot your birthday. Soon you’ll be seeing their faces in your mind’s eye, plastered onto the bodies Personville’s doomed criminal population. It’s a cathartic read for sure.
Above all else it’s worth reading for his prose alone. The biting humour and the terse rhythm of the writing snare you quickly and don’t let go till the bloodbath reaches it’s climax. It’s easy to see how Hammett exerted such influence, still easily recognisable today, on the noir genre and beyond. But don’t take my word for it. Pick up this book now and, if you haven’t already, augment it with The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man. See a master at work, then chide your current favourite author for ripping him off so mercilessly