Themes

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Red Harvest presents a literary image of the United States as a violent, greedy, power-hungry society. The main villains are not the gangsters but wealthy influential people who use thugs to defend their often ill-gotten wealth and the power derived from it. This lust for money and power is stronger than even family ties, as witnessed by the death of Donald Wilsson caused indirectly by his own father. The question Hammett presents to the reader focuses on what, if anything, can be done to correct this situation; furthermore, Hammett writes about the consequences which face a man who has made it his task to steer clear both of pervasive corruption and of the attempts to fight against it.

The end of the novel indicates that any victory against the forces of materialism and greed will be short-lived, since the core of the corruption is not located in the hired gunmen, but in the hearts of their employers, the pillars of Personville's and American society. Thus, respectability is merely a facade, created to make it possible for the wealthy to engage in dishonorable conduct at a reduced risk. The enormous amount of bloodshed and cruelty generated in the novel is borne essentially by minor villains who have become pawns in a power struggle which they are incapable of understanding or surviving.

The Op, while initially sent to Personville by his boss on a routine assignment, soon makes the cleaning up of the city his own personal quest. He discovers to his dismay that the standard operating procedures of his profession are inadequate for this task. In order to safeguard his success and his survival he must go against the instructions of his superiors; he must lie, cheat, and kill; finally, he comes to the realization that the success of his task depends on his ability to pretend to be just as corrupt and venal as the rest of the inhabitants of the city. Indeed, at the end of the novel, he realizes that it is time for him to leave Personville, because he is very close to actually enjoying all the bloodshed and deceit. Even a basically honest though ruthless man like the Op is in danger of being corrupted by the pervasive moral decay, and his most damning comment occurs in the final segments of the book, when he says, "You can't go straight here."

This negative, anticapitalist, pro-Marxist attitude is a hallmark of Hammett's work, particularly his early stories and novels. It has had profound influence on many of Hammett's followers in American detective fiction, especially on Raymond Chandler, whose detective Phillip Marlowe is a more compassionate, less violent descendant of the Op. In Red Harvest, Hammett expresses the belief that this corrupt, materialistic society, which will use any amount of violence necessary to protect its sinful behavior, can be combatted only by using equal or greater amounts of violence, by matching deceit with even more deceitful behavior. Legal remedies are ineffective — the police are worse than the criminals — and idealistic public defiance and exposure of the criminal behavior is self-destructive, as Donald Wilsson, publisher of the town's two newspapers, discovers.

Even so, the Op's victory is temporary and won at great personal cost. He knows that the dead racketeers will soon be replaced and that while gaining his victory he has incurred the wrath of his boss, lost the respect of his colleagues, and, most alarmingly, he has discovered the "darkness of his own soul" and how close he himself lives to the abyss which has already swallowed up the inhabitants of Personville.

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