In Dashiell Hammett's novel Red Harvest, in what ways is Dinah Brand defined by the clothes she wears? What do the descriptions of her clothes tell us about her and what do they tell us about the narrator?
Chapter Three of Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 crime novel Red Harvest is titled “Dinah Brand.” Logically, it is a good place to find useful information on this character. Hammett’s detective, the story’s narrator, has come to a small town in Montana, Personville, which its residents derisively call “Poisonville,” a reference to the town’s endemic corruption. Hammett’s initial descriptions of Personville leave absolutely no doubt that it is a slovenly locale teaming with what can only be described as ‘white trash.’ Witness, for example, the narrator’s observations of the town’s law enforcement officers, who spies incrementally while driving around:
“The first policeman I saw needed a shave. The second had a couple of buttons of his shabby uniform. The third stood in the middle of the city’s main intersection . . . directing traffic with a cigar in the corner of his mouth.”
With the stage set, and the detective/narrator having arrived from cosmopolitan San Francisco to dirty, crime-ridden “Poisonville,” the entrance of Dinah Brand represents a continuation of that theme. Before meeting Dinah, the narrator has a conversation with the chief of police, who describes her as
“[a] soiled dove, as the fellow says, a de luxe hustler, a big league gold-digger.”
The reader can anticipate the introduction of a less-than-admirable female operator – a conman in a skirt who will prostitute herself or do whatever else is necessary to get ahead. Certainly, the narrator’s first head-to-head encounter with Dinah serves only to reaffirm such early impressions:
“The young woman got up, kicked a couple of newspapers out of her way, and came to me with one hand out.
“She was an inch or two taller than I, which made her about five feet eight. She had a broad-shouldered, full-breasted, round-hipped body and big muscular legs. The hand she gave me was soft, warm, strong. Her face was the face of a girl of twenty-five already showing signs of wear. Little lines crossed the corners of her big ripe mouth. Fainter lines were beginning to make nets around her thick lashed eyes. They were large eyes, blue, and a bit blood-shot. . .Her dress was of a particularly unbecoming wine color, and it gaped here and there down one side, where she had neglected to snap the fasteners, or they had popped open. There was a run down the front of her left stocking.”
The detective novels of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler established a standard for books of that genre. They feature what are generically referred to as “hard-boiled” private investigators: tough, weary, detectives hardened emotionally and physically by years of existing in the lower-echelons of society. They have seen it all, and know their jobs, but will never get ahead themselves. The women in such stories invariably fit a mold of their own: tough, sassy, usually physically attractive and very manipulative. Dinah fits three of these descriptions; Hammett makes clear that, while she may be somewhat attractive, she is no beauty queen. Dinah is, though, every bit the femme fatale who brings pain to those around her. And, she is a match for Hammett’s detective. As the narrator rhetorically maneuvers around her, Dinah reveals that which motivates her:
“’If you talked my language,’ she drawled, looking narrow-eyed at me, ‘I meet be able to give you some help.’
‘Maybe if I knew what it was.’
‘Money,’ she explained, ‘the more the better I like it’.”
Later, in a subsequent meeting, the narrator again describes the woman he has come to visit:
“Dinah Brand opened the door for me, her big ripe mouth was rouged evenly this evening, but her brown hair still needed trimming, was parted haphazardly, and there were spots down the front of her orange silk dress.”
Dinah is a low-income, low-class manipulator who has seen better times. She applies make-up heavily to conceal the toll her lifestyle has imposed upon her, and her clothes are usually in poor shape. There is nothing about her that suggests the platitudinous figure of the hooker with a heart of gold. She is a product of her environment, and that environment is corrupt to the core.