Reviews
Red Harvest

Posted by Jason Venter (October 12, 2016)

Somehow, I managed to reach my mid-30s without knowing about Dashiell Hammett, the classic American writer who many credit with creating the "hard-boiled detective" subgenre. He is famous for writing "The Maltese Falcon," a book I had heard referenced because it was apparently made into a popular movie, but that was his third novel. To see the first novel he ever produced, one must go further back, to "Red Harvest."

Featuring a breezy first-person narrative style that is standard for this sort of story, "Red Harvest" begins as an investigator working for the Contenintental Op comes to the city of Personville, at the behest of a client. He arranges a time to meet with the man at his house, but that time comes and goes without the meeting ever occurring. It turns out the poor fellow has been murdered.

The investigator stays on and eventually secures a contract. He will be paid to "clean up" the town, which many of the locals know as "Poisonville." That will require him to deal with a number of unsavory types, a beautiful woman with her hands in all sorts of messy pies, and even the occasional corrupt lawman. There will be double crosses, gunplay, and even high-speed chases.

Numerous writers have since tackled similar subject matter, and they wrote in much the same vein. It felt odd to me now, reading a book written in 1928 that--except for the technology--felt like it could just as easily have been written here in 2016. The language flows beautifully, and the descriptions are solid. Some of the lingo is out of date, and I couldn't help but feel that I was reading historical fiction that just happened to also be filled to the brim with action. But of course, the novel was actually written when such things were contemporary.

Have you ever listened to the old radio dramas, which feature a tough-as-nails detective who talks and shoots his way through one tense encounter after another? Those presentations were, as far as I can tell, based on books exactly like this one. Dashiell Hammett created something wonderful in "Red Harvest," and I had a difficult time putting it down once I started reading it... enough so that I actually blew through it all in one extremely enjoyable sitting.

My fear when I bought the book (which was actually featured as part of an omnibus from The Library of America) was that I would have difficulty getting into things, because perhaps it wouldn't move quickly enough or the descriptions wouldn't be suitably evocative or the language would be unnecessarily complex. None of those fears proved founded, and I look forward to reading more work from the author in the very near future. Tonight, even. Why wait days or weeks to indulge in such a treat?

Rating: 9/10

Jason Venter is a freelance blogger who spends most of his time writing about games and technology. Follow him on Twitter if you dare, at @jasonventer.

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[Reviews] The Thin Man

A breezy sort of detective story that makes me wish Hammett explored these characters in additional novels.

[Reviews] The Glass Key

Takes Hammett's usual focus on murder and mixes it with a dash of political corruption, with mixed results.

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