Red Harvest by Dashiel Hammett – review

Hammett, Red HarvestI apologize if this seems like blasphemy.

The Continental Op is hired by Poisonville local Donald Wilsson but Wilsson is murdered before they meet face to face. The Op investigates the murder and quickly crosses paths with Donald’s father Elihu. It doesn’t take long before he manages to strong arm old Elihu into hiring him to rid Poisonville of corruption; corruption Elihu help to incubate. The Op’s big plan is to set the four gangs that run Poisonville against one another hoping that they destroy themselves. Form there hi-jinx and calamity ensue, bringing together a cast of unlikable losers and ridiculous turns of events.

I’d like to state that I get why people love this book. I also get why people love Hammett. Red Harvest (as well as most everything by Hammett) was pioneering. This was all so fresh and exciting at the time and for most folks it still is. But it still doesn’t do anything for me.

I can’t seem to get past my disdain for the characters Hammett writes. Unless it’s The Op, he (or she) is a deadbeat, a pussy, an idiot, a stickler, a lunatic, a whore, ad infinitum. Basically no one but The Op has any redeeming qualities or possesses any traits remotely close to likable. I understand that The Op is the star of the show but I can’t help think that Hammett wrote everyone else as being a piece of shit just so his baby would look that much better in comparison.

I can see the argument being made that The Op also has his short comings but being middle-aged and slightly overweight just makes him more relatable. I would also go so far as to say that his “bad attitude” makes him cool and macho and should not be considered as a negative trait. I’m not going to pull a Penzeler and say that no P.I. fiction can be noir but in the case of Hammett I have to kind of agree. Keep in mind I am not an expert by any stretch and this is purely my opinion.

I wish I had some eloquent way to explain how needlessly over the top I felt the plot was. It just seemed like there was a twist and turn at every page and I never felt like I was able to get into a rhythm, coast, and just enjoy myself. The only thing I can think was that because this was originally serialized in The Black Mask over four issues (if I’m not mistaken) that each of these issues had to contain enough twists and turns to keep the reader engaged. I probably would have enjoyed this more had I read it over the course of a few helpings.

On the up-side the prose and dialogue were amazing. This is where Hammett really shines. Everything is hard and cold and fast. No endless paragraphs about scenery or weather, just the straight goods. But that’s where it ends for me.

I know it’s blasphemy for me to say I didn’t like it but I’m happy to say I’ve read and experienced it and that I can check it off the list. I only have one more Hammett to go (The Glass key) and I’m hopeful (but not expectant) that it will win me over to his side.


This is a part of the 200 noirs project. An attempt to read and review every book on Allan Guthrie’s Top 200 Noirs list. You can follow him on Twitter @200Noirs

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4 Replies to “Red Harvest by Dashiel Hammett – review”

  1. the great thing about reading, about anything, is that you can have an opinion and express it (at least for the time being). got to admire you for spilling your truth about Red Harvest. it’s been a while since i read it and i have to say i thought it was brilliant. now you have me thinking i should go back and read it again (as if the pile of books to be read wasn’t high enough already). that dialogue will make the re-read worthwhile though, so thanks for the reminder.

  2. Don’t think The Glass Key will do it either. IMHO, none of Hammett’s other stories equals the The Maltese Falcon. I always thought Red Harvest was a political assault on the western mining industry, and more of a wild, serialized nightmare than a proper tale.