Red Harvest is an excellent detective novel, one of many Dashiell Hammett wrote in the genre. It’s a complicated, intriguing story, and the book at times reads like a screenplay for a great film noir. The dialogue is so clever, and so sharp you can’t just read it normally. I had to picture Humphrey Bogart puffing a cigarette, or sipping a scotch while delivering the lines. Hammett creates an entire corrupt, mysterious, world and pulls you into the smoky noir setting of the crooks and cops in Red Harvest’s Personville.
Hammett uses the narrative framing device of a Continental Op traveling to Personville (pronounced “Poisonville” by anyone who knows it), summoned by the last honest man, Donald Willsson, who is murdered before they ever get to meet. While investigating the murder, the Op encounters Willsson’s father Elihu, who strikes a deal with him to clean up Personville. Elihu tries to call it off, but the Op has his heart set on punishing the guilty, and cleaning the streets, even if he has to take on the entire town.
Throughout the story he encounters many colorful characters: the mysterious Max “Whisper” Thaler, the shameless Dinah Brand, the corrupt police chief Noonan, and many more. The Op works with, and against, these people trying to rid the city of crime. The prose and dialogue are sharp and strong, and the story is gloriously bloody, boasting a body count in the high teens. The Coen brothers film Blood Simple is even named after a line in the book in which the Op complains that the corruption and endless murder in this town is turning him “blood-simple”. There are twists and turns and murders all along the way as he tries to execute his elaborate plan to clean up Personville.
To reveal more of the plot would diminish the joy and suspense of actually reading the book, but rest assured it is worth your time. This is a classic story, an exploration of corruption in America, a superb novel, and just a damn fun crime story.