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Red Harvest – Dashiell Hammett

 
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Posted May 9, 2016 by

Red Harvest – Dashiell Hammett – 1929

Posted by Steven on 3/7/2012, 9:34:01

(non-spolier)

I’m almost finished. The narrator says at one point that Dinah had her hair “marcelled.” I had not seen that term before, but found plenty of illustrations with the help of Google. The look is certainly a trademark of the 1920s:

It’s rather surprising that no major film has ever been made of Red Harvest, just a loose adaptation under another title. I can’t help, though, but picture the Continental op as Humphrey Bogart and Dinah Brand as Rita Hayworth.

~

Posted by guillermo maynez on 3/7/2012, 11:58:00, in reply to “Red Harvest”

****SPOILERS****

Throughout my reading life, I have never been a genre buff. That means, I have read some sci-fi, some horror, some historical novel, and so on, but not much. On crime fiction, I’ve read a couple of Agatha Christie, one Georges Simenon, and a few others I don’t remember just now. Sherlock Holmes I’ve read basically everything, but I happen not to consider it genre fiction (whatever that means), but true, solid, good literature without adjectives. Now, I have wanted to read Hammett, Chandler, and the like, just for the fun of it. And now it´s the time to do it, in the company of such distinguished readers as my ReadLit friends.

I enjoyed it, and it was what I expected, not less, not more. It’s a fast read, though I sometimes had to go back a few pages to re-check some fact or name. That was fine. I liked the fact that there is no “happy” ending, and that tough guys remain tough. The Continental Op is no Brad Pitt, but a regular guy; not a superstar of detection, but a normal guy investigating sordid affairs without Crown jewels or State dignitaries involved.

Poisonville is like any town in Mexico today, where all the establishment is corrupted: mayor, chief of police, businessmen, etc. Where do I hire a Continental Op to come clean this mess?? (Sigh).

I loved the witticisms, the tough one-liners while bullets fly around; the hardened attitude towards any and all. “If you bring ethics to Poisonville, they’ll get rusty”. I feel tempted to date Dinah Brand, but frankly prefer to stay home watching old black-and-white crime movies…

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Posted by Steven on 3/7/2012, 18:39:30, in reply to “Re: Red Harvest”

This is probably what Dinah Brand’s “Little Marmon” looked like.

Bildschirmfoto 2016-05-09 um 10.48.22

Whisper’s getaway car was a black Lincoln.

1924LincolnLimosine

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Posted by Steven on 3/7/2012, 22:23:44, in reply to “Re: Red Harvest”

I went through a phase in my teens of reading mostly historical fiction, then a long phase in my 20s of reading nothing but science fiction, but, like you, I’ve only sampled crime fiction and that only recently. I’ve read most of Sherlock Holmes, one Hammett (before this), one Chandler, and one Christie. I can see the appeal, and I would like to read more, but I couldn’t take it as a steady diet the way some people (my wife, for one) do.

Hammett’s language and storytelling abilities are both impressive. His laconic and witty one-liners succinctly conjure up not only an image of what’s happening, but the narrator’s feelings. And in a complex story with more than a dozen significant characters I never felt lost, though there are a few gaps in my understanding of actions and motives.

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Posted by Guillermo Maynez on 4/7/2012, 13:45:06, in reply to “Re: Red Harvest”

Perhaps the part that remained a bit confusing to me was Reno’s involvement in the plot. He is a character that appears relatively late in the story, and not a member of the original group of guys that have displaced old Willsson from power. But he is the one who actually kills Dinah. What’s your take on it?

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Posted by Steven on 4/7/2012, 14:24:13, in reply to “Re: Red Harvest”

Yes, Reno’s motive for killing Dinah and then the Continental Op’s conveniently falling with his hand on the ice pick all seem a bit contrived. Also Helen Albury, watching from across the street, seems to have seen everyone else but missed Reno’s coming and going.

Notice that we never learn precisely why the younger Willsson summoned the Continental detective to begin with?

I was also expecting some big revelation about what Dinah was doing or planning to do with all the money she was collecting from her lovers, but that never came out.

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Posted by Sterling on 7/7/2012, 15:00:27, in reply to “Re: Red Harvest”

I finished re-reading Red Harvest last night. It has been several years since I read it, but I’m still impressed by the lean writing style, startling amorality, and dark humor. I love that it’s set in Montana! Nobody ever thinks of gangsters in remote small towns. Generally, they’re in Chicago, L.A., NYC, etc. I love the way Hammett manages to make Dinah desirable while pointing out the runs in her stockings, the badly parted hair, her shameless love of money, etc. She may be the most soiled femme fatale in all literature. Soil her much more and she would lose her allure.

In my youth, I read a lot of crime fiction. My boyish tastes steered me away from Agatha Christie and the more genteel mystery/crime novels. Mostly, I liked them hard-boiled. I read the great detective ones (such as Hammett and Chandler), the noir crime novels (such as James M. Cain and Jim Thompson), and some true pulp junk (say, Mickey Spillane). I also read some modern writers who can stand with the greats of the first half of the 20th century, such as Elmore Leonard and James Crumley. I still read some from this genre. I also read tons of science fiction/fantasy. It’s still my genre fiction choice, although today I tend to read literary fantasists like Gene Wolfe and John Crowley. These novels can be every bit as challenging as any literary novel, especially Wolfe. (If they were South American, I think they would be considered “magic realists” and be taken more seriously by the literati.) If anyone is interested, I can recommend other crime/mystery novels that I think are well worth the read.

Let me give you my take on some of the questions posed:

: Perhaps the part that remained a bit confusing to me

: was

: Reno’s involvement in the plot. He is a character that

: appears relatively late in the story, and not a member

: of the original group of guys that have displaced old

: Willsson from power. But he is the one who actually

: kills Dinah. What’s your take on it?

I’d have to analyze the plot more closely to figure out all the mechanics. Did you notice that Whisper is the only “original” boss with whom the Op has personal interaction (unless you count Noonan, the police chief.) Pete the Finn only makes a brief cameo and we never meet Lew Yard at all. I think the plot flows more naturally if we meet Reno when he is not yet a crime boss.

: Helen Albury, watching from across the street, seems to have

: seen everyone else but missed Reno’s coming and going.

I don’t think so. Helen told the police that she had observed Whisper, Dan Rolff, Reno, and the Op go in and out of Dinah’s house, which is why those four are linked in the newspaper story.

: Yes, Reno’s motive for killing Dinah and then the

: Continental Op’s conveniently falling with his hand on

: the ice pick all seem a bit contrived.

Reno’s only motive for killing Dinah is self defense. He had no intention to murder her. He went to Dinah’s to ambush Whisper, and then concluded that maybe he was the one being set up. He starts to slap her around to get the truth, she grabs the ice pick, he takes it away from her and stabs her. No real motive. I agree that the Op just falling on the ice pick sounds contrived. I wouldn’t be surprised if Reno intentionally positioned the unconscious Op next to the dead Dinah with his hand on the ice pick. He tells the Op the unlikely coincidence story because he hopes that he’ll survive and believes that making it all “just a coincidence” may help preserve him from the Op’s revenge.

: Notice that we never learn precisely why the younger

: Willsson summoned the Continental detective to begin

: with?

Yes, and I think that is one of the most clever devices in the plot. First, if what we hear of him is to be believed, Donald Willsson wants to clean up Poisonville as a “crusading newspaper editor.” This would make him a good guy. Hammett goes to some lengths to present us a world in which absolutely everybody (including the Op to some extent) is at least morally compromised. Most are totally corrupt. Also, the Op basically manipulates Elihu into being the Agency’s client. He decides to open Poisonville from “Adam’s apple to ankles” pretty much because he want to.

: I was also expecting some big revelation about what

: Dinah was doing or planning to do with all the money

: she was collecting from her lovers, but that never

: came out.

That never occurred to me. I thought that part of her soiled charm is that she is an unabashed gold digger. Apparently, she just loves money.

It is surprising that Red Harvest has never been made into a proper, faithful movie adaptation like the rest of Hammett’s books. The novel’s strange journey through film rights and adaptations is discussed in the second half of this link:

http://www.salon.com/2005/02/28/hammett_2/

~

Posted by Steven on 8/7/2012, 9:56:43, in reply to “Re: Red Harvest”

Thanks for the clarifications, Sterling. My memory is getting so bad lately I sometimes wonder why I bother reading at all.

Persontown was supposedly based on Butte, Montana, which I visited back in the 70s. The description generally fits–it was at that time a rather rundown little city of once-grand turn-of-the-century gingerbread houses. Of course the real Butte perches on the rim of a gigantic open pit copper mine that could easily swallow the city itself. There is nothing like this in the novel.

The book does make you wonder if gangsterism was that pervasive outside the major cities during Prohibition. (And wonder what would happen to the current crime rates in the U.S. and Mexico if the prohibition of recreational drugs were relaxed.) Here in Dallas we had plenty of bootleggers (my father was one), but I don’t know if they were organized into any kind of syndicate. The more famous criminals were the bank robbers like the Barrow Gang (i.e. Bonnie & Clyde). Where law enforcement was corrupt in the South it was more likely to be under the control of the Klan than the bootleggers.

I haven’t heard of James Crumley, but I have a couple of books by Elmore Leonard. Maybe we can do them next year. I’ve also been meaning to read Wolfe and Crowley, but still haven’t gotten to them yet. Likewise Connie Willis. I have, however, read some excellent SF this year by China Miéville and Kim Stanley Robinson.

I liked that Dinah was depicted as a rather shabby femme fatale. It goes along with the image of Persontown in general.

Even before reading the Salon article you linked I had thought that Red Harvest resembled, and may have inspired, some of the clean-up-the-town Westerns. One I remember in particular was the Clint Eastwood movie High Plains Drifter. It’s funny to think that the title Red Harvest would have been objectionably during the McCarthy era, but that’s also when the Cincinnati Reds temporarily changed their name to the Redlegs.

~

Posted by Sterling on 8/7/2012, 18:42:51, in reply to “Re: Red Harvest”

Here’s an interesting blog posting regarding whether Personville is Butte:

http://mtprof.msun.edu/Spr2008/crowl.html

Regarding gangsters, Prohibition, the Great Depression, and the Dust Bowl seems to have created two essentially different kinds of “gangsters:” the outlaws and the syndicate. The former kind are the Dust Bowl bank robbers like John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, Pretty Boy Floyd, etc. These guys seem to be virtually the same kind of outlaws as those of the Old West. I’m sure the James Gang or the Wild Bunch would have used cars and submachine guns rather than horses and revolvers if they’d had them available! The other kind is the true organized crime made up of immigrants: Irish (Bugs Moran); Jews (Meyer Lansky), and, especially, Italians (Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, etc.). These gangs seemed to stake out urban turf where they ran liquor, gambling, dope, prostitution, etc. Remarkably, Montana seems like a natural setting for the outlaw breed, but the gangsters in Red Harvest seem more like the syndicate type.

I’ve read China Miéville. I think he’s very good. I have at least one Kim Stanley Robinson novel but I haven’t gotten around to it yet. It might indeed be fun to do Leonard next year, and maybe a scifi/fantasy novel, such as Doomsday Book (Willis); Little, Big or Ægypt (Crowley), or something by Wolfe (possibly The Book of the New Sun, his magnum opus). As for Crumley, I’ll give you an idea from the first line of the first novel of his I read, The Last Good Kiss:

When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.

I think we should move on from hard-boiled detectives as a group, but I strongly recommend Crumley. I don’t want to run links into the ground but George Pelacanos’ list is interesting:

http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2008/09/19/books-george-pelecanos.html

It is ironic that the title Red Harvest was objectionable to the McCarthyites, especially since Hammett did indeed become a Marxist. But there’s no sign of it in Red Harvest, unless you count the whole corrupt social fabric as a comment on unbridled capitalism.

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