(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Red Harvest, Hammett’s first novel, is now generally regarded as one of his best. The case begins when the Continental Op is sent to the small Montana mining town of Personville (called “Poisonville” by those who know it) at the request of Donald Willsson, the publisher of the town’s newspapers. Willsson, who had been using the newspapers as a platform from which to fight civic corruption, is murdered before the Op can meet him and find out what he was hired to do. The Op manages to persuade Elihu Willsson, Donald’s father and the owner of most of the property in the town, including the newspapers and the mines, to hire him to investigate crime and political corruption in Personville.

As it turns out, Donald Willsson’s murder was at the hands of a jealous bank teller who mistakenly believed that Willsson was having an affair with the teller’s former girlfriend, Dinah Brand. When Elihu Willsson learns that his son’s death was entirely unrelated to the organized crime in the town, he tries to call the Op off the case; in fact, Willsson himself is deeply involved in the corruption and could be caught up in the investigation. By this time, however, there is no turning back; the Op has become too deeply enmeshed in the web of power and corruption that includes not only his own client but also the local bootleggers, gamblers, hired gunmen, and even the chief of police.

As the title suggests, this is the most violent of the novels; the twenty-first of its twenty-seven chapters is entitled “The Seventeenth Murder” (in its original serial publication in the pulp magazine Black Mask, it had been the nineteenth), and the series of killings has by no means ended at that point. The difference between the neat puzzles to be solved by deduction in the classical model and the confusing multiplicity of crimes and criminals in the hard-boiled novel of detection is underscored when Dinah Brand, who becomes the Op’s ally and, the text implies, romantic interest, comments directly on the...

(The entire section is 830 words.)