Summary

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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 Op’s methods:“So that’s the way you scientific detectives work. My God! for a fat, middle-aged, hard-boiled pig-headed guy you’ve got the vaguest way of doing things I ever heard of.” “Plans are all right sometimes,” I said. “And sometimes just stirring things up is all right—if you’re tough enough to survive, and keep your eyes open so you’ll see what you want when it comes up to the top.”

The moral corruption that permeates the town seems to be contagious, eventually affecting even the Op, who arranges several murders himself by playing off the rival factions against each other, largely by misinforming them about each other’s intentions. Indeed, it is only at the end of the novel that the reader, along with the Op, learns that he did not commit the seventeenth murder (of Dinah Brand) while under the influence of a mixture of laudanum and gin. This type of suspense is possible because of Hammett’s decision to use a severely restricted first-person narration by the Op to tell the story; the reader sees and hears only as much as the Op does and knows far less. The story is told almost entirely through terse, objective descriptions and dialogue. The Op seldom reveals his thoughts directly and only occasionally discusses them with other characters.

The reader’s task of interpretation is complicated by the fact that most of the dialogue in the novel is between characters who are intentionally trying to mislead and confuse each other. The reader’s limitation to and identification with the Op’s point of...

(This entire section contains 830 words.)

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view creates much of the book’s interest, especially when the Op appears to be falling under the contagion of corruption himself, becoming poisoned morally by “Poisonville” and turning into a bloodthirsty killer not much different from the criminals he is supposed to be combating.

At the book’s close, most of the major characters have been murdered. Rather than emphasizing a tidy solution to the case—recall that the murder he was originally hired to investigate is solved quite early in the book and has little to do with the main plot—the ending clearly suggests that the pattern of pervasive corruption will continue relatively unchanged. Elihu Willsson is still in control of the local government, and the town is “all nice and clean and ready to go to the dogs again.” Political corruption, fueled by the rich industrialist, is the norm, not the aberration. Many critics have seen evidence of Hammett’s Marxist views even in this early work because of this implicit critique of capitalist society. This morally evil, or at best neutral, world within which the hard-boiled detective lives and works and the patent corruption of the public legal system place added importance on his private code of ethics, the only standard of behavior to which he holds himself.

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