Dashiell Hammett’s first published novel, Red Harvest, stars an unnamed dick, but the book isn’t so much a detective novel as it is an exploration of the destruction and renewal of a vice-ridden mining town named Personville. The city boss, who serves “Poisonville” as both mayor and company president, can no longer control the strikebreakers he imported to bust up a prolonged work stoppage. Initially retained by the editor of the daily paper to conduct background research for a developing story, the Continental Op is reluctantly hired by the mayor to return the town to respectability.
Red Harvest is no murder mystery in the Scooby Doo sense because, unlike the Spillane novels reviewed last week, there is no particular villain to unmask. Here, the action unfolds as the Continental Agency operative learns the personal histories of the town’s power players, assesses their motivations, and determines how best to play one set of guns against another. The simple brilliance of this novel is Hammett’s ability to create believable characters in a handful of sentences, and then send them out to wreak mayhem against others. Poisonville is as much a living character as Conan Doyle’s London or Bolaño’s Santa Teresa because it is so central to its citizens’ hopes, frustrations, and fears. The detective apprehends, as bodies multiply, that the town is somehow getting the better of him.
The Continental Op might just be a stand-in for Hammet’s ideal reader. Even though he’s privy to the same information we are, the detective is uniquely able to separate the relevant from the misleading and move the narrative forward. He ingratiates himself with each of the opposing camps in town, analyzes their situations, and dispenses advice to their leaders based upon their own best interests. Although the shakedowns, shootings, and betrayals were probably inevitable, the Op is the catalyst, the omnipotent narrator annihilating and rebuilding alliances. Our detective’s actions lead to more than a dozen deaths, a prison break, riots in the street, blackmail, and his own frame-up for murder.
Rarely do writers trust their lead characters to create, and not merely experience, their own story. I imagine that most characters, and most living human beings, aren’t capable or don’t want to always be in charge, preferring often just to passively accept whatever is foisted upon them. Hammett’s writing in Red Harvest is so precise and inviting that those who pick it up might convince themselves, as they flip backwards twenty pages or so, that they could have played puppet-master just as easily.