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Red Harvest
1.14.2003 by Julian, every Tuesday.

The first thing I noticed about Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest was how modern it sounded. It was written in the 20s, and I expect anything from that far back to sound laughably dated. But if you’d told me that Red Harvest was written last year I probably would have believed you. It’s mean and gritty and hard-edged, and I just don’t think about anything old like that. This novel has nothing to do with agriculture. It has to do with blood and corpses.

Red Harvest is an early classic of the American school of detective fiction. While British detective fiction tends to be about gentleman detectives solving whodunits in stately homes from the comfort of armchairs, the American variety takes place out in the city streets. While British detective fiction is based on intellect, American is based on action. Sherlock Holmes will be presented with evidence and work out every last detail from what he is given. The American detective will hunt down the evidence, usually following a trail of corpses (some of which he may have created himself).

The protagonist of Red Harvest is never given a name, and he is almost without personality. He is driven and ruthless and has no friends, unless he is using them for information. He drinks a lot and kills people. He’s a far cry from your polite, civilized British detective.

The book takes place in a town called Personville, but everyone calls it Poisonville. It’s ruled by a collection of crime-bosses, who own the police force and the municipal government. Our detective has been hired by a man called Donald Willsson, but by the time he arrives in Poisonville, his client has already been killed. In working out who killed him he gets dragged into the city’s web of organized crime. Eventually he finds himself taking on Poisonville itself, trying to destroy the power of the criminals who run the place.

Our detective is clever and he knows just which strings to pull and which buttons to push to play one criminal faction against another. At times it’s a bit too easy for him. You’ll find yourself saying, “He couldn’t possibly have known that was going to happen!” Our hero steps into a city of absolute chaos, and by revealing a bit of information here, performing a bit of blackmail there, he makes everything go his way. But if you can manage to suspend your disbelief, the book is extremely satisfying to read for just this reason.

Red Harvest was patched together from several short-stories originally published in pulp mags during the 20s, and it shows. The novel is episodic and it’s easy to spot the places where the original stories must have ended. One result of this structure is that there are a lot of characters, and it’s sometimes hard to keep track of who’s who, let alone who the murderers are (answer: everybody). This makes the detective’s feats even more impressive, but can also be kind of frustrating when you have to keep rereading bits to check who’s being killed/blackmailed/framed/arrested at any given time.

Having said that, the writing tends to be blunt and to the point. It sounds exactly the way a hard-boiled detective would talk:
The blond kid who had sapped Rolff squeezed past Jerry and came grinning into the room. He caught one of the girl’s flourished arms and bent it behind her. She twisted toward him, socked him in the belly with her other fist. It was a very respectable wallop—man-size. It broke his grip on her arm, sent him back a couple of steps. The kid gulped a wide mouthful of air, whisked a blackjack from his hip, and stepped in again. His grin was gone.
Reading this book made me realize how little the detective genre has changed in 70 years. I’m no expert on crime-fiction, but this is the sort of thing I would expect to read in a modern crime novel. If you want to know where Quentin Tarantino got his inspiration, read this book.

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