This is one of those books I love beyond a number of other “better” works of art, so don’t expect a balanced and overly critical review. Not that the book isn't fantastic. [SPOILERS AHEAD, SPOILERS AHEAD:]
My very first exposure to Hammett was the novella, Woman in the Dark, published separately as a slender volume which I read in college. I knew very little about Hammett save he was supposed to be the man who inspired Chandler and I loved Chandler as much back then as I do today. The edition I read was this long skinny page of sans serif font that made my head ache in just the short time it took to read one chapter. Since I was always suffering from some kind of hangover in those years, I attributed the crummy feeling the book gave me not to a layout and design idiot, but to Hammett himself and didn’t pick up another book of his for ten solid years.
This was the book I picked up. If there were ever a novel to cure anyone of those delusional “good old days” nostalgias for times before when they lived, back when everything was good and pure unlike the filth we see today, this is the novel. Red Harvest oozes corruption, crime, murder, and action from every page and it’s a nasty, thrilling piece of business.
From page one, Hammett had me by the throat and he didn’t let go. Here’s how the book opens: I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit. I didn’t think anything of what he had done to the city’s name. Later I heard men who could manage their r’s give it the same pronunciation. I still didn’t see anything in it but the meaningless sort of humor that used to make richardsnary the thieves’ word for dictionary. A few years later I went to Personville and learned better. [snip:]
The city wasn’t pretty. Most of its builders had gone in for gaudiness. Maybe they had been successful at first. Since then the smelters whose brick stacks stuck up tall against a gloomy mountain to the south had yellow-smoked everything into uniform dinginess. The result was an ugly city of forty thousand people, set in an ugly notch between two ugly mountains that had all been dirtied up by mining. Spread over this was a grimy sky that looked as if it had come out of the smelters’ stacks.
The first policeman I saw needed a shave. The second had a couple of buttons off his shabby uniform. The third stood in the center of the city’s main intersection — Broadway and Union Street — directed traffic, with a cigar in one corner of his mouth. After that I stopped checking them up.
Hired by a young newspaper man, Donald Willsson, son of Elihu Willsson, whose mining company owns Personville lock, stock, and barrel, Hammett’s unnamed detective, the Continental Operative arrives in town to meet with his client. His client is dead before the fourth page is over. His father hires the Continental Op to investigate the murder, and the Op makes his own arrangements. It seems that several years ago Elihu called in the mob to help break the coal miner’s union and ever since then the mob has owned a sizable chunk of Willsson’s ugly little city. The Op promises Willsson he will clean the town out.
What follows is a quickening descent into hell. The Op cozies up to a money addled floozy in town, Dinah Brand, and through her he temporarily gets on the good side of a gambler and muscle man in town, Max “Whisper” Thaler, before setting him against Dinah and dragging in the town bootlegger, Pete the Finn, loan shop and bail bondsmen Lew Yard, bank robber Reno Starkey, and police chief Noonan. And each guy’s own personal army of thugs and hired guns.
What’s remarkable throughout the book is how Hammett, and through him, the Continental Op manages to keep all the plates spinning, keep all the heavies against each other, keep unhelpful power blocs from forming, and keep each person from tumbling to the fact that he’s the man who’s balling up the works. This is not to say that no one takes a shot at the detective or that he leaves unscarred.
Poisonville works its vicious magic on our “hero” as well turning him blood simple. Along the way, the Continental Op finds he rather enjoys pitting one crime boss against the other and watching them blow merry hell out of each other. He walks a very fine line between cleaning out the town and becoming just another vicious member in the city’s power plays. Along the way he solves not just the murder of his client (a piece of cake he cracks early in the book), but also who murdered Dinah Brand (possibly he himself), who murdered lawyer Charles Proctor Dawn, and who killed Noonan’s younger brother Tim years ago.
There are so many bodies piled up in Poisonville that sometimes keeping track of the story is tricky. Hammett has put a lot of story in the way of the plot here. The only real drawback to this is keeping track of the various criminals, no easy task since they’re really only briefly introduced before we move along or they die. The pacing throughout is tight, breakneck tight, the Op barely even sleeping and the story hustling along with him. Working against a deadline of his boss finding out just what kind of mayhem he’s up to, the gangsters finally putting two and two together, and a bullet finally catching up to him, the Op has no choice but to think on his feet and sleep that way too.
Blisteringly well written, Hammett's second novel packs the kind of wallop modern crime writers only wish they had in them.