Hammett, according to Raymond Chandler, “gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse.” At a time when detective fiction was replete with high-society types who concocted elaborate killings and did so for obscure or highly contrived motives, Hammett introduced readers to thugs like Pete the Finn, Lew Yard, Reno Starkey, and Max “Whisper” Thaler. These crooks are professionals, with appropriately professional motivations to kill, and they form part of the murderer’s row that the nameless hero of this novel must confront as he strives to clean up the dirty streets of Personville, a midsized mining town in the Mountain West. It’s a relentlessly corrupt town—locals and outsiders alike call it Poisonville—and the task of defeating its many bad guys requires a deep reserve of moxie more than it does a refined intelligence. “Poisonville is ripe for the harvest. It’s a job I like, and I’m going to do it,” the Continental Op explains to one of the colorfully named thugs. (Nowhere in this book does the protagonist, who also serves as the narrator, refer to himself as the Contintental Op. But he’s an operative for the Continental Detective Agency, so that’s how he’s come to be known.) As Hammett’s title foretells, the “harvest” that the Op carries out assumes a grimly sanguinary hue. By the Op’s own tally, there are 19 murders that take place between the opening and the closing of this case. Indeed, he commits a few of them himself, and he does it for a reason: As he says, it’s his job.
In that way, Red Harvest differs fundamentally from a standard mystery tale. Far from chronicling the orderly pursuit of truth and justice by a sleuth who embodies the power of human reason, this début novel depicts a random and cruel world in which circumstances can push even the otherwise noble Op to become (in his words) “blood-simple.” Where order does exist, as in the bureaucratic regimen followed by the Old Man, who runs the Continental office back in San Francisco, that mode of order bears no relation to the real business of fighting crime. When bullets are flying and bodies are falling, the Old Man’s expectation that the Op will file regular reports on his activity in Personville carries a whiff of the absurd. For the Op, detection is chiefly a matter of disruption. “Plans are all right sometimes,” he says to Dinah Brand, the femme fatale in this proto-noir effort. (With her, as with the menfolk of Poisonville, the Op follows a cagy, keep-your-enemies-close strategy.) “And sometimes just stirring things up is all right—if you’re tough enough to survive, and keep your eyes open so you’ll see what you want when it comes out on top.”
Even as Hammett charts new fictional terrain with this book, he also annexes features from established genres. He updates the classic western saga, for example: The Op acts the part of an outsider who brings the law to a far-flung outpost where ruffians had previously held sway. He contends with bootleggers rather than cattle rustlers, and he relies on a flivver instead of a horse to get from place to place; nonetheless, his every move reflects the spirit of frontier justice. Traces of the classic mystery form are evident here as well. Despite his commitment to hard-boiled naturalism, Hammett displays a penchant for abrupt plot twists that reveal unlikely suspects to be surprise killers. Red Harvest originally appeared as a four-part serial in Black Mask magazine, and several times—at what would have been a climactic moment in one of those four segments—the Op manages to pull a trick rabbit out of his snap-brim hat. In each case, the guilty party has committed murder “for a reason,” but that reason isn’t what readers are inclined to expect. With sleight-of-hand plotting of that sort, Hammett pays homage to the very tradition of classic detection that he aims to transcend.
What results is partly a tale of (new) Old West derring-do, partly a clue-laden puzzle story, and partly a study in modern existential sensibility. It is, in addition, a feat of true literary art.