Literary Techniques

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Red Harvest is an excellent example of the differences in technique between the classic and the hard-boiled detective novel. Whereas the former uses murder and detection as the ingredients for a game, playfully set against the background of a basically healthy, perfectly ordered society, the hard-boiled detective novel treats crime as symptomatic of a troubled American society. The work of the Op, then, is not the pretense for an intellectual contest between the detective and the reader, but it is an heroic attempt to preserve a measure of dignity and morals in an otherwise corrupt world. In Red Harvest, the answer to the question of who killed Donald Wilsson is quite secondary to the portrayal of a decayed moral landscape, in which the last somewhat decent human being must make his stand and choose his defense.

The first-person narrative of a nameless narrator emphasizes this approach. The violent capitalist conspiracy is related to the reader through the eyes of the Op, who appears to give a dispassionate account of the events, but who betrays his anxieties in his account of two drug-induced dreams, both involving unsuccessful and humiliating chases. In the particularly significant second dream, the Op hunts down his prey, but then they both fall from the top of a high building. This demonstrates the more serious literary intent of the novel β€” classic detective stories explicitly reject any form of literary "detraction," such as allegory, from the puzzle; secondly it expresses the obsession of the detective with his work, as well as his subconscious realization that an unqualified victory is not possible in his struggle to rid his society of evil. These allegorical dreams in Red Harvest find a parallel in the Flitcraft episode of The Maltese Falcon.

Like The Dain Curse, Hammett's other Op novel, Red Harvest is a conglomerate of four Op stories, which had been published in Black Mask between 1927 and 1928: "The Cleansing of Poisonville," "Crime Wanted-Male or Female," "Dynamite," and "The 19th Murder".

Social Concerns

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Hammett's first novel clearly shows the writer's deep-seated proletarian biases and his disenchantment both with the social structure of the United States and with his own former role as an enforcement tool for the exploiters. The Pinkerton Detective Agency, in the years after its founding in 1850, served an important law enforcement function in the U.S.; in the years when there was virtually no national law enforcement agency dealing with interstate crime, Pinkerton's was frequently hired to deal with cases which went beyond the jurisdiction and capacity of local police forces. The attempts by the Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.) to organize industrial labor on a nationwide basis and the resulting, often violent strikes were a boon to Pinkerton's agency, which was frequently hired to break strikes and disrupt union activities. Hammett himself was given several assignments of this nature and made many bitter comments about his complicity in these cases. Both his disenchantment with detective work and his growing inclination toward Marxist social philosophy can be attributed to his disgust with the anti-union assignments he had to perform.

Beyond these themes which can be linked to Hammett's personal experiences, Red Harvest exhibits the same social concerns which inform the novels of writers like Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who harshly pointed out social injustices in the U.S. and deplored the disintegration of the American Dream. Red Harvest thus becomes a novel of social criticism, pointing out the long-standing corruption of the American pastoral ideal, exposing the violent, greedy world of the Prohibition era, and posing a number of existential dilemmas for the person opposed to this corruption...

(This entire section contains 509 words.)

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and greed.

Personville, the location of most of the action, becomes a microcosm of the United States; it is, as its sarcastic pronunciation, Poisonville, indicates, a poisoned place, what the critic George Grella has termed "The Great Bad Place." The town is not merely infested and threatened by crime but criminal activity is the norm. Significantly, Personville is located in the West β€” it may be an amalgam of Boulder, Colorado and the mining towns of Butte and Anaconda, Montana. In this way the town is a symbol of the disappearance of the frontier spirit of the West, which has given way to an industrial urban scene and perverted the often justified use of violence in the West into the criminal violence of gangsters and tycoons in single-minded pursuit of money and power. Hammett sees Personville, "sick from the diseases of violence, greed, and capitalist extortion," as representative of a whole society. The violence which Elihu Wilsson has imported, presumably on a temporary contract, to quash the labor unrest among the coal miners, has become endemic and leads to the death of his own son. In the end, a dubious order is restored, but Hammett clearly indicates that the depravity of Personville is beyond redemption: sooner or later, someone will step into the power vacuum created by the inevitable leaving of the National Guard which Elihu Wilsson had called in on the Continental Op's request.

Literary Precedents

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The American hard-boiled detective novel does not develop, as one might think, out of the classic detective story in the mold of Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, but has its roots in the medieval romance and in the American Western novel. Whereas the classic detective story depicts an overwhelmingly positive, rural-pastoral society, the hard-boiled detective novel follows in the footsteps of the Grailquest romances, in which the hero wanders through a barren countryside with an incapacitated king and finally manages to redeem this wasteland after great personal suffering.

Another model is the Western novel, in which the protagonist engages himself on the side of civilization against destructive, lawless forces, despite the fact that he himself views the advance of civilization with some hostility, as he has chosen to escape that civilization and to live in the untamed environment of the frontier on which this civilization encroaches.

The hard-boiled detective, represented here by the Continental Op, is thus on one side a descendant of the medieval knight; however, since his moral values have become outmoded, he has turned into a sort of Don Quixote, albeit one fighting his windmills with greater brutality and efficacy. Still, in his world there are also no longer fair maidens to be defended and adored; Dinah Brand resembles Dulcinea more than she does Guinevere. Yet, despite the hopelessness of the battle and the physical and mental dangers inherent in the attempt, the Continental Op persists in his quest. His rewards are injury, loss of friends, rebuke from his boss: a Pyrrhic victory at best.

On the other side, the Op is a kinsman of Natty Bumppo, the hero of James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking tales, and of gunfighter heroes like Owen Wister's Virginian. Essentially lonely, disappointed with urban civilization, they have chosen the life of the frontier, on the borderline between law and anarchy. Often against their will, they find themselves defending helpless people who are unable or unwilling to resist violence with violence and who need the special combative talents of the protagonist to survive. In the end, the same people who have hired the hero are not appreciative of the very physical skills which have saved them, and the hero retreats back into the freedom and loneliness of the West.

The Continental Op is the first and most important hard-boiled detective in the modern American detective story who exemplifies this heritage. While he represents one of the more violent models of this tradition, he is also conscious of his precarious moral position and is horrified when he discovers that he begins to enjoy his violent behavior. He therefore is somewhat of a compromise between the nearly saintly Lew Archer, the detective hero in the novels of Ross Macdonald, and Mike Hammer, the sadistic private eye created by Mickey Spillane.


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