Red Harvest (Dashiell Hammett)

Posted: September 10, 2016 in fiction
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I’ve been having trouble with the books I’ve been reading lately. I just don’t have much to say about them. Even if I sit down to write a simple plot summary, I feel absolutely uninspired. I think this one’s going to get me out of the rut, so let’s give it a go.

At this point in his career, Hammett had been publishing short stories for six or seven years. Many of them featured a private investigator with the Continental Detective Agency, San Francisco branch. The Continental Op is never named, but he’s been played on the screen twice, by James Coburn and Christopher Lloyd. Though I’m familiar with them, Coburn from Charade and Lloyd from Back to the Future and The Addams Family, I read the entire book in Humphrey Bogart’s voice. For some reason, every hard-boiled detective I read turns into Bogart, even though I’ve seen more films with William Powell in that role (my favorite is Star of Midnight, with Ginger Rogers). Red Harvest is Hammett’s first novel. Like The Dain Curse, published later the same year and also featuring the Continental Op, it was published serially, which gives it a choppy feel, like Cranford or The Pickwick Papers. But this one is not as choppy as Dain. There’s a nice stop at the end of the first section, but after that it flows pretty well.

The Op never meets his client. He’s supposed to meet a man named Donald Willsson, but Willsson dies before they can meet. Willsson’s father Old Elihu then hires the Op to investigate the death, but the Op tricks him into paying him to clean up the town. You see, Elihu Willsson used to own Personville (aka Poisonville), but then he couldn’t hang onto it, so he brought in some organized crime to keep everything in his own pocket. But the gangsters preferred things in their own pockets, so he lost control. At the time of the story, there are three principal gangs, those belonging to Whisper Thaler, Lew Yard, and Pete the Finn. Then, of course, there’s the police, but Chief Noonan is as bad as the other three. Cleaning up a town like this takes a lot of killing, and this book has a chapter titled “The Seventeenth Murder,” and that’s not the end of the book (or of the murdering). It’s a bit like watching Game of Thrones; if there’s a character in the book, he’s probably dead by the end.

This is 1929, and the writing is more commercial than artistic, so comments on sexuality are kept to a minimum, but some things got me thinking.

On the edge of this congregation I stopped beside a square-set man in rumpled gray clothes. His face was grayish too, even the thick lips, though he wasn’t much older than thirty. His face was broad, thick-featured and intelligent. For color he depended on a red windsor tie that blossomed over his gray flannel shirt.

You see, back when I was a student, I read an article on The Sound and the Fury that claimed that in the late 1920s red neckties were a signal for gay men to recognize each other. The author makes a convincing case for the circus guy that Quentin runs off with, but I haven’t really seen any evidence of it outside of the one book. And then the Op:

I put out a finger and touched a loose end of his tie. “Mean anything? Or just wearing it?”

It turns out that the guy is a leader of the IWW, so communist instead of homosexual. But still, it got me paying attention to some of the other descriptions.

I looked past the beefy man and saw Thaler’s profile. It was young, dark and small, with pretty features as regular as if they had been cut by a die.

“He’s cute,” I said.

Another description of Thaler:

A smallish young man in three shades of brown crossed the street ahead of me. His dark profile was pretty.

He just keeps reminding us that Thaler is pretty:

There were five of us. Thaler sat down and lit a cigarette, a small dark young man with a face that was pretty in a chorusman way until you took another look at the thin hard mouth. An angular blond kid of no more than twenty in tweeds sprawled on his back on a couch and blew cigarette smoke at the ceiling. Another boy, as blond and as young, but not so angular, was busy straightening his scarlet tie, smoothing his yellow hair. A thin-faced man of thirty with little or no chin under a wide loose mouth wandered up and down the room looking bored and humming Rosy Cheeks.

Which sounds more like the opening scene of a gay porno than the eye of the storm in a shootout. Maybe the red tie means something after all.

And another guy:

At the First National Bank I got hold of an assistant cashier named Albury, a nice-looking blond youngster of twenty-five or so.

And him again:

The flush in his pleasant young face deepened and he spoke hesitantly.

So there are all of these handsome men running around, all orbiting around a single female star:

She was an inch or two taller than I, which made her about five feet eight. She had a broad-shouldered, full-breasted, round-hipped body and big muscular legs. The hand she gave me was soft, warm, strong. Her face was the face of a girl of twenty-five already showing signs of wear. Little lines crossed the corners of her big ripe mouth. Fainter lines were beginning to make nets around her thick-lashed eyes. They were large eyes, blue and a bit blood-shot.

Her coarse hair – brown – needed trimming and was parted crookedly. One side of her upper lip had been rouged higher than the other. Her dress was of a particularly unbecoming wine color, and it gaped here and there down one side, where she had neglected to snap the fasteners or they had popped open. There was a run down the front of her left stocking.

This was the Dinah Brand who took her pick of Poisonville’s men, according to what I had heard.

The Op’s description of Miss Brand is lavish, detailed, voluptuous even, more so than that of any of the men, but what is missing? There is no appraisal. The Op doesn’t tell us she’s beautiful, or pretty, or cute, or any such thing. He scans her for clues, not for attraction. You could read some scenes as implying that he sleeps with her, but there are equivalent private drinks with Albury and other men. I’m not saying that either the Op or Hammett was gay; I’m just saying that it’s a possibility, and that bisexuality was a lot more common before we put a name to it.

This is not a book for people who grow attached to their characters, nor is it a book for people who are uncomfortable with books about people dying left and right. People die, sometimes because the protagonist shoots them. Them’s the breaks, kid. On the other hand, Dashiell Hammett is a monolith of detective fiction, and this, his first novel, is on a few lists of “Best American Novels.” It’s good, gripping, and despite all the death, Hammett’s prose seems to live. There is something vital and compelling about his work. It’s hard to let go of one of his stories. Fortunately, they’re not that long. Short and suspenseful; good adjectives for detective fiction. It’s what makes him one of the best.

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Comments
  1. You need something to clear the mind. Try an unusual wavelength like Alexander McCall Smith or Rabindranath Tagore’s short stories 😉

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