Red Harvest, Dashiell Hammett’s first novel, written based on his experiences with Pinkerton Detective Agency, and first serialized in the now defunct pulp magazine Black Mask, was so influential on the hardboiled school of literature and so definitive of the genre, that Time magazine selected it ahead of his most iconic work, The Maltese Falcon, in its list of 100 Greatest Novels of 20th Century. And, though Sam Spade was certainly the more appealing character, in the Continental Op, the story’s nameless protagonist – a short, overweight, chain-smoking, hard-drinking, world-weary, cynical, jaded and amoral detective who prefers real politik over conscience, we have nearly as brilliantly etched a character. The Op, employed with Continental Detective Agency, arrives in Personville, a Western mining town which he immediately renames as “Poisonville”, at the behest of one Donald Wilsson, only to find his client murdered before he even gets to meet him. On one hand he begins investigating the case, while on the other he literally arm-twists Elihu, his deceased client’s profane, domineering and powerful father into employing him to clean the insanely corrupt town of its filth. And thus he jumps headlong into his relentless fight against crooked cops, gangsters, bootleggers, gamblers and other hardened criminals, by slyly playing each party against the others. He also develops an affair based on quid pro quo with a self-serving seductress. What follows, inevitably, is mayhem as people start dying all around as no one leaves unscathed, and takes Op to the edge both professionally and personally. The outlaw town and its low-lives came alive courtesy Hammett’s superb prose marked by terse language, wit, cynicism, wisecracks, black humour and a thoroughly pessimistic outlook. The result was a rich and complex tale of violent power struggles, deceits, treacheries, blackmails, gang-wars and whatnot – a bleak and nihilistic reversal of the American Dream, if you will. Interestingly, despite being tailor-made for a noir and/or gangster film, its closest adaptation, albeit not formally acknowledged, was a samurai film, viz. Kurosawa’s Yojimbo.
Author: Dashiell Hammett
Genre: Thriller/Roman Noir/Gangster/Detective Novel/Hardboiled Literature