Saturday, August 25, 2012

16. Red Harvest

By Dashiell Hammett

 “I’ll give you nothing except a good job of city-cleaning. That’s what you bargained for, and that’s what you’re going to get.

If only we had The Continental Op to clean up the corruption that’s been going down in Montreal!

A “fat, middle-aged, hard-boiled, pig-headed” operative from the Continental Detective Agency is hired by a local industrialist to root out widespread corruption in Personville, a town so overrun with criminals and gangs that it’s better known as “Poisonville” to the locals. In no time, our unnamed protagonist, like a chess master, is able to play the various factions against one another, but as the bodies start piling up, he realizes this is becoming more than a job... he’s enjoying this way more than he’d like to admit.

This was only the second Dashiell Hammett book I’ve ever read, and lemme tell ya, this was quite different from The Thin Man, which was a gift from hubs several years back. The Thin Man was quite light and humourous, mostly due to the witty banter from Nick and Nora Charles as they cheerfully imbibe and solve murders. Red Harvest has its fill of witty banter all right, as well as imbibing, but it’s much darker and grittier. After reading a few chapters, I was a little surprised to learn that it was published in 1929, as some of the gritty subject matter seemed like it belonged in the 1940’s, during the height of film noir.

I also learned from Olman that Red Harvest was an extremely influential book, particularly for filmmakers over the years. The novel itself is a fairly straightforward crime thriller, but everything – the setup, the characters, the setting, the dialogue, the structure – is expertly crafted. And Hammett has such an awesome way with words. He says enough in a couple of sentences what a writer would struggle to say in multiple paragraphs.

     She grabbed my shoulders and tried to shake my hundred and ninety pounds. She was almost strong enough to do it. 
     “God damn you!” Her breath was hot in my face. Her face was white as her teeth. Rouge stood out sharply like red labels pasted on her mouth and cheeks. “If you’ve framed him and made me frame him, you’ve got to kill him—now.” 
     I don’t like being manhandled, even by young women who look like something out of mythology when they’re steamed up. I took her hands off my shoulder, and said: 
      “Stop bellyaching. You’re still alive.”

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