In which Netty discovers that detective fiction is a genre worth solving after all …

November 9, 2014

I’ve never been a big fan of crime fiction, for no particular reason other than I guess I just prefer other genres. And what I have read has, interestingly (or maybe not), mostly been Antipodean – Peter Corris (Cliff Hardy), Shane Maloney (Murray Whelan), Kerry Greenwood (Phryne Fisher), Peter Temple (Jack Irish). Nothing wrong with that list!

harvest-coverDashiell Hammett – an early-to-mid 20th-century American writer of whom I had only fleetingly heard – was Andy’s choice, and one with which I was happy to go along. And I’m glad that I did – Hammett’s debut novel Red Harvest is imminently readable, well-plotted and paced, well-characterised and well-written, and I really did quite enjoy it. Even though I possibly won’t read another Hammett book – and there’s not that many of them (only five published between 1929 and 1934 – starting with Red Harvest, and most notably including The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man – but numerous short stories that span four decades) – I have no qualms about having read this one.

If this all sounds like a big “but”, it is – hence my need to qualify it. I daresay at the end of year when I do my “best-of” list, Red Harvest will be bringing up the rear for no other reason than I will have better liked other books I read. And that’s obviously not the fault of this novel, more just down to my personal preferences. If you are yet to read my blogging partner Andy’s take on Red Harvest, I advise you do so (right here) – ultimately I feel it will offer a more inclusive take.

Hammett’s life itself is interesting enough to warrant a book – in fact, it has, a couple, and a movie or two to boot as well. He worked as a detective prior to enlisting in the army and serving in World Wars I and II, working in advertising, then becoming a writer, and a political activist – which lead to a brief period of incarceration in the early 1950s, when American paranoia was at its peak. Tuberculosis contracted during WWI plagued him for most of his adult life, but lung cancer claimed his life in 1961, when he was 66.

Wikipedia tells me Hammett’s unnamed narrator, referred to only as the Continental Op and a recurring character throughout his fiction, is based on the author’s own experiences as an operative in the Pinkerton National Detective Agency in Butte, Montana, in the mid-1910s to early 1920s; the same source says the labour dispute depicted in Red Harvest is based on a miners’ strike there in 1920. So Hammett knows his stuff, but most evocative for me was his portrayal of 1920s small-town America, post-war but pre-Depression. I have always been a sucker for such settings, and that probably will be what stays with me long after the plot is banished to the back of the memory banks.

The plot. Righto, then. The Continental Op , who works for a detective agency in San Francisco, is summoned to the city of Personville (presumably in the American Midwest and nicknamed “Poisonville” by its residents) by Donald Willsson, the publisher of its local newspaper the Herald. Donald is also the son of city overlord Elihu, who owns said newspaper, runs Personville Mining Corporation and the First National Bank, and has his fingers in every other pie in town and possibly the state. But a miners’ strike some years previously was broken by Elihu’s hired thugs who subsequently overtook the city, existing uneasily in rival gangs.

After Donald’s murder (this is not a spoiler – it happens on page four!), the Continental Op ends up in the wily old Elihu’s employ, with the dual task of solving his son’s homicide and cleaning up the town in the process – no mean task with its cast of crooked characters, all of whom have a beef with one another and are not immune to subterfuge and backstabbing, sometimes literally!

It’s a thankless task, even with Elihu’s $10,000 cheque behind it, as the death count continues to mount, leaving very few still standing in the final pages. As a weary Op notes late in the novel, “It’s this damn town. Poisonville is right. It’s poisoned me”, while lamenting that his boss back in San Francisco will “boil me in oil if he ever finds out what I’ve been doing”.

Now to the quibbles, again qualified as they may be. Perhaps it is due to my lack of familiarisation with this genre, but in Hammett’s depiction of a corrupt town basically at war with itself, with a large roll-call of characters, I found I too easily lost track of which minor character was doing what, and to whom; who was his friend, who was his foe – so intricate and multi-stranded is the fabric of this novel (which, I hasten to add, is but a mere 215 pages in my edition).

Perhaps it was the fact I read the book over the course of two (rather busy) weeks, when I should have – and easily could have – read it in one or two sittings. I shamefacedly admit I was about a quarter of the way through when I realised one character – who is referred to by both his name and nickname – was in fact not two separate people. D’oh!

But again, as I have said from the onset, these are my shortcomings and should not be read as a detraction. So by all means, read Red Harvest, especially if you are a fan of crime fiction, but even if you aren’t. When Andy and I caught up to chat about it, I opined that perhaps I spent so much time immersed in “difficult” books, I was left unnecessarily bewildered by their more straightforward counterparts.

Mea culpa. Perhaps.

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