Greatest Ever Pulp Stories #3 – Red Harvest

black_mask_192711By: Dashiell Hammett

Appeared in: Black Mask (serialized), November, December 1927, January, February 1928

Character/Series: The Continental Op

An unnamed narrator working for the Continental Detective’s Agency arrives in the mining town of Personville at the request of a newspaper publisher. The publisher is murdered before the Continental Op has a chance to meet him and he instead agrees to work for his father, Elihu Wilsson who wants to find out who killed his son.

Wilsson is an industrialist who previously used several gangs against the unions to cement his political control over the town. Since then, the gangs have more or less taken over and Wilsson wants the Continental Op to bring them to their knees.

Working on information passed to him by Dinah Brand – one of the gangsters’ molls – the narrator starts a gang war which brings a bloody ‘red harvest’ to the town. But when the narrator wakes up in bed next to the dead Dinah, holding the ice pick which was used to murder her, he finds himself floundering in a town so crooked he barely knows which way is up.

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Dashiell Hammett

Dashiell Hammett’s debut novel melds the western and the gangster story perfectly in its depiction of a dusty Montana town soaked in blood and corruption in which the color of everybody’s hat is a shade of gray. There are no heroes here, not even the protagonist. Like Hammett’s later anti-hero, Sam Spade (protagonist of the more famous The Maltese Falcon), we rarely get a glimpse inside the Continental Op’s head and are left to judge the character on what he doesn’t say.

Cold, detached and laconic, he shows a dogged perseverance to get the job done. His actions perhaps mirror the author’s disgust at political corruption and its thuggery towards labor unions. Hammett was a strike breaker for the Pinkerton Agency in his younger years but as he grew older his politics leaned ever more to the left, eventually landing him in hot water in the McCarthy era (he did six months in prison in 1951 for refusing to name names).

Red Harvest defined the emerging hardboiled detective story and has been the basis for a number of movies, beginning with Roadhouse Nights (1930) which was only loosely inspired by it. The plot also bears a striking similarity to Akira Kurosawa’s samurai flick Yojimbo (1961) which itself was remade as a western; A Fistful of Dollars (1964). There was even a sword and sorcery version of the tale set on a distant planet; The Warrior and the Sorceress (1984). Two movies in the 90s brought the tale back to prohibition era America beginning with the Coen brothers’ mobster masterpiece Miller’s Crossing (1990) and Last Man Standing (1996) which was an authorized remake of Yojimbo.