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Raymond Chandler claims that the protagonist of the hard-boiled detective story is "the hero. He is everything." This view of the figure of the detective as being of central, almost exclusive importance is equally valid in the case of Dashiell Hammett's Continental Op stories and novels. The Continental Op appears in thirty-six short stories, some of which were then used to make up Red Harvest and The Dain Course (1929). In marked contrast to the master sleuth of the classic detective story, the Op is an employee of a detective agency that sends him on different assignments. He is short, heavy-set, overweight, not physically attractive. The Op is never given a first name, partially because Hammett wanted to depart consciously from the personality cult of the classic detective, and partially to represent the Op as the prototype of the proletarian hero, who labors without much recognition for his wealthy employers, does his work anonymously, but still gains personal pride and satisfaction from it and is fiercely loyal to his agency. The Op is in many ways Hammett's alter ego; in a corrupt world, he has arrived at a sort of existentialist moral code which dictates his behavior more than the social or the legal code. In the tradition of the American Western, he is attracted to but wary of women; he is a loner, unmarried and without any mention of family or social connections. Much of his moral code is informed by the demands of his profession and he is a less complex predecessor of Sam Spade of The Maltese Falcon (1930). His talents, like those of most hard-boiled detectives, are physical and practical, in contrast to the cerebral abstract thinkers of the classic detective story.

The other major character in Red Harvest is Personville, the social setting of the novel. The residents of the town are completely defined by the moral climate which pervades it. They all exhibit more or less advanced symptoms of moral degeneracy, and, except for Elihu Wilsson, they are two-dimensional. Donald Wilsson, whose death provides the inciting element in the plot, represents the only relatively honest man in town; the rest, from Max "Whisper" Thaler to Police Chief Noonan and Dinah Brand, are puppets aspiring to be puppeteers, themselves mercilessly manipulated by Elihu Wilsson's forces and by the Op.

The large number of characters in the novel is an indication of the widespread corruption in America, short glimpses of corrupt people totally insignificant in the plot of the novel indicate that greed and immorality are not limited to the important dramatis personae. In subsequent novels, Hammett uses fewer characters without relenting in his fierce attack on American society and human nature.

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