Detective-story master Dashiell Hammett gives us yet another unforgettable read in Red Harvest: When the last honest citizen of Poisonville was murdered, the Continental Op stayed on to punish the guiltyeven if that meant taking on an entire town. Red Harvest is more than a superb crime novel: it is a classic exploration of corruption and violence in the American grain.
About the Author
Dashiell Samuel Hammett was born in St. Mary’s County, Maryland. He grew up in Philadelphia and Baltimore. Hammett left school at the age of fourteen and held several kinds of jobs thereafter—messenger boy, newsboy, clerk, operator, and stevedore, finally becoming an operative for Pinkerton’s Detective Agency. Sleuthing suited young Hammett, but World War I intervened, interrupting his work and injuring his health. When Sergeant Hammett was discharged from the last of several hospitals, he resumed detective work. He soon turned to writing, and in the late 1920s Hammett became the unquestioned master of detective-story fiction in America. In The Maltese Falcon (1930) he first introduced his famous private eye, Sam Spade. The Thin Man (1932) offered another immortal sleuth, Nick Charles. Red Harvest (1929), The Dain Curse (1929), and The Glass Key (1931) are among his most successful novels. During World War II, Hammett again served as sergeant in the Army, this time for more than two years, most of which he spent in the Aleutians. Hammett’s later life was marked in part by ill health, alcoholism, a period of imprisonment related to his alleged membership in the Communist Party, and by his long-time companion, the author Lillian Hellman, with whom he had a very volatile relationship. His attempt at autobiographical fiction survives in the story “Tulip,” which is contained in the posthumous collection The Big Knockover (1966, edited by Lillian Hellman). Another volume of his stories, The Continental Op (1974, edited by Stephen Marcus), introduced the final Hammett character: the “Op,” a nameless detective (or “operative”) who displays little of his personality, making him a classic tough guy in the hard-boiled mold—a bit like Hammett himself.
Date of Birth:May 27, 1894
Date of Death:January 10, 1961
Place of Birth:St. Mary, Maryland
Place of Death:New York
Education:Baltimore Polytechnic Institute
Read an Excerpt
A WOMAN IN GREEN AND A MAN IN GRAY I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit. I didn't think anything of what he had done to the city's name. Later I heard men who could manage their r's give it the same pronunciation. I still didn't see anything in it but the meaningless sort of humor that used to make richardsnary the thieves' word for dictionary. A few years later I went to Personville and learned better. Using one of the phones in that station, I called the Herald, asked for Donald Willsson, and told him I had arrived. "Will you come out to my house at ten this evening?" He had a pleansantly crisp voice. "It's 2101 Mountain Boulevard. Take a Broadway car, get off at Laurel Avenue, and walk two blocks west." I promised to do that. Then I rode up to the Great Western Hotel, dumped my bags, and went out to look at the city. The city wasn't pretty. Most of its builders had gone in for gaudiness. Maybe they had been successful at first. Since then the smelters whose brick stacks stuck up tall against a gloomy mountain to the south had yellow-smoked everything into uniform dinginess. The result was an ugly city of forty thousand people, set in an ugly notch between two ugly mountains that had been all dirtied up by mining. Spread over this was a grimy sky that looked as if it had come out of the smelters' stacks. The first policeman I saw needed a shave. The second had a couple of buttons off his shabby uniform. The third stood in the center of the city's main intersectionBroadway and Union Streetdirecting traffic, with a cigar in one corner of his mouth. After that I stopped checking them up. At nine-thirty I caught a Broadway car and followed the directions Donald Willsson had given me. They brought me to a house set in a hedged grassplot on a corner. The maid who opened the door told me Mr. Willsson was not home. While I was explaining that I had an appointment with him a slender blonde woman of something less than thirty in green crepe came to the door. When she smiled her blue eyes didn't lose their stoniness. I repeated my explanations to her. "My husband isn't in now." A barely noticeable accent slurred her s's. "But if he's expecting you he'll probably be home shortly." She took me upstairs to a room on the Laurel Avenue side of the house, a brown and red room with a lot of books in it. We sat in leather chairs, half facing each other, half facing a burning coal grate, and she set about learning my business with her husband. "Do you live in Personville?" she asked first. "No. San Francisco." "But this isn't your first visit?" "Yes." "Really? How do you like our city?" "I haven't seen enough of it to know." That was a lie. I had. "I got in only this afternoon." Her shiny eyes stopped prying while she said: "You'll find it a dreary place." She returned to her digging with: "I suppose all mining towns are like this. Are you engaged in mining?" "Not just now." She looked at the clock on the mantel and said: "It's inconsiderate of Donald to bring you out here and then keep you waiting, at this time of night, long after business hours." I said that was all right. "Though perhaps it isn't a business matter," she suggested. I didn't say anything. She laugheda short laugh with something sharp in it. "I'm really not ordinarily so much of a busybody as you probably think," she said gaily. "But you're so excessively secretive that I can't help being curious. You aren't a bootlegger, are you? Donald changes them so often." I let her get whatever she could out of a grin. A telephone bell rang downstairs. Mrs. Willsson stretched her green-slippered feet out toward the burning coal and pretended she hadn't heard the bell. I didn't know why she thought that necessary. She began: "I'm afraid I'll ha" and stopped to look at the maid in the doorway. The maid said Mrs. Willsson was wanted at the phone. She excused herself and followed the maid out. She didn't go downstairs, but spoke over an extension within earshot. I heard: "Mrs. Willsson speaking. . . . Yes. . . . I beg your pardon? . . . Who? . . . Can't you speak a little louder? . . . What? . . . Yes. . . . Yes. . . . Who is this? . . . Hello! Hello!" The telephone hook rattled. Her steps sounded down the hallwayrapid steps. I set fire to a cigarette and stared at it until I heard her going down the steps. Then I went to a window, lifted an edge of the blind, and looked out at Laurel Avenue, and at the square white garage that stood in the rear of the house on that side. Presently a slender woman in dark coat and hat came into sight hurrying from house to garage. It was Mrs. Willsson. She drove away in a Buick coupe. I went back to my chair and waited. Three-quarters of an hour went by. At five minutes after eleven, automobile brakes screeched outside. Two minutes later Mrs. Willsson came into the room. She had taken off hat and coat. Her face was white, her eyes almost black. "I'm awfully sorry," she said, her tight-lipped mouth moving jerkily, "but you've had all this waiting for nothing. My husband won't be home tonight." I said I would get in touch with him at the Herald in the morning. I went away wondering why the green toe of her left slipper was dark and damp with something that could have been blood. I walked over to Broadway and caught a street car. Three blocks north of my hotel I got off to see what the crowd was doing around a side entrance of the City Hall. Thirty or forty men and a sprinkling of women stood on the sidewalk looking at a door marked Police Department. There were men from mines and smelters still in their working clothes, gaudy boys from pool rooms and dance halls, sleek men with slick pale faces, men with the dull look of respectable husbands, a few just as respectable and dull women, and some ladies of the night. 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. "What's the rumpus?" I asked him. He looked at me carefully before he replied, as if he wanted to be sure that the information was going into safe hands. His eyes were gray as his clothes, but not so soft. "Don Willsson's gone to sit on the right hand of God, if God don't mind looking at bullet holes." "Who shot him?" I asked. The gray man scratched the back of his neck and said: "Somebody with a gun." I wanted information, not wit. I would have tried my luck with some other member of the crowd if the red tie hadn't interested me. I said: "I'm a stranger in town. Hang the Punch and Judy on me. That's what strangers are for." "Donald Willsson, Esquire, publisher of the Morning and Evening Heralds, was found in Hurricane Street a little while ago, shot very dead by parties unknown," he recited in a rapid sing-song. "Does that keep your feelings from being hurt?" "Thanks." I put out a finger and touched a loose end of his tie. "Mean anything? Or just wearing it?" "I'm Bill Quint." "The hell you are!" I exclaimed, trying to place the name. "By God, I'm glad to meet you!" I dug out my card case and ran through the collection of credentials I had picked up here and there by one means or another. The red card was the one I wanted. It identified me as Henry F. Neill, A. B. seaman, member in good standing of the Industrial Workers of the World. There wasn't a word of truth in it. I passed this card to Bill Quint. He read it carefully, front and back, returned it to my hand, and looked me over from hat to shoes, not trustfully. "He's not going to die any more," he said. "Which way you going?" "Any." We walked down the street together, turned a corner, aimlessly as far as I knew. "What brought you in here, if you're a sailor?" he asked casually. "Where'd you get that idea?" "There's the card." "I got another that proves I'm a timber beast," I said. "If you want me to be a miner I'll get one for that tomorrow." "You won't. I run 'em here." "Suppose you got a wire from Chi?" I asked. "Hell with Chi! I run 'em here." He nodded at a restaurant door and asked: "Drink?" "Only when I can get it." We went through the restaurant, up a flight of steps, and into a narrow second-story room with a long bar and a row of tables. Bill Quint nodded and said, "Hullo!" to some of the boys and girls at tables and bar, and steered me into one of the green-curtained booths that lined the wall opposite the bar. We spent the next two hours drinking whiskey and talking. The gray man didn't think I had any right to the card I had showed him, nor to the other one I had mentioned. He didn't think I was a good wobbly. As chief muckademuck of the I. W. W. in Personville, he considered it his duty to get the low-down on me, and to not let himself be pumped about radical affairs while he was doing it. That was all right with me. I was interested in Personville affairs. He didn't mind discussing them between casual pokings into my business with the red cards. What I got out of him amounted to this: For forty years old Elihu Willssonfather of the man who had been killed this nighthad owned Personville, heart, soul, skin and guts. He was president and majority stockholder of the Personville Mining Corporation, ditto of the First National Bank, owner of the Morning Herald, and Evening Herald, the city's only newspapers, and at least part owner of nearly every other enterprise of any importance. Along with these pieces of property he owned a United States senator, a couple of representatives, the governor, the mayor, and most of the state legislature. Elihu Willisson was Personville, and he was almost the whole state. Back in the war days the I. W. W.in full bloom then throughout the Westhad lined up the Personville Mining Corporation's help. The help hadn't been exactly pampered. They used their new strength to demand the things they wanted. Old Elihu gave them what he had to give them, and bided his time. In 1921 it came. Business was rotten. Old Elihu didn't care whether he shut down for a while or not. he tore up the agreements he had made with his men and began kicking them back into their pre-war circumstances. Of course the help yelled for help. Bill Quint was sent out from I. W. W. headquarters in Chicago to given them some action. He was against a strike, an open walk-out. He advised the old sabotage racket, staying on the job and gumming things up from the inside. But that wasn't active enough for the Personville crew. They wanted to put themselves on the map, make labor history. They struck. The strike lasted eight months. Both sides bled plenty. The wobblies had to do their own bleeding. Old Elihu hired gunmen, strike-breakers, national guardsmen and even parts of the regular army, to do his. When the last skull had been cracked, the last rib kicked in, organized labor in Personville was a used firecracker. But, said Bill Quint, old Elihu didn't know his Italian history. He won the strike, but he lost his hold on the city and the state. To beat the miners he had to let his hired thugs run wild. When the fight was over he couldn't get rid of them. He had given his city to them and he wasn't strong enough to take it away from them. Personville looked good to them and they took it over. They had won his strike for him and they took the city for their spoils. He couldn't openly break with them. They had too much on him. He was responsible for all they had done during the strike. Bill Quint and I were both fairly mellow by the time we had got this far. He emptied his glass again, pushed his hair out of his eyes and brought his history up to date: "The strongest of 'em now is probably Pete the Finn. This stuff we're drinking's his. Then there's Lew Yard. He's got a loan shop down on Parker Street, does a lot of bail bond business, handles most of the burg's hot stuff, so they tell me, and is pretty thick with Noonan, the chief of police. This kid Max ThalerWhisperhad got a lot of friends too. A little slick dark guy with something wrong with his throat. Can't talk. Gambler. Those three, with Noonan, just about help Elihu run his cityhelp him more than he wants. But he's got to play with 'em or else" "This fellow who was knocked off tonightElihu's sonwhere did he stand?" I asked. "Where papa put him, and he's where papa put him now." "You mean the old man had him?" "Maybe, but that's not my guess. This Don just came home and began running the papers for the old man. It wasn't like the old devil, even if he was getting close to the grave, to let anybody cop anything from him without hitting back. But he had to be cagey with these guys. He brought the boy and his French wife home from Paris and used him for his monkeya damned nice fatherly trick. Don starts a reform campaign in the papers. Clear the burg of vice and corruptionwhich means clear it of Pete and Lew and Whisper, if it goes far enough. Get it? The old man's using the boy to shake 'em loose. I guess they got tired of being shook." "There seems to be a few things wrong with that guess," I said. "There's more than a few things wrong with everything in this lousy burg. Had enough of this paint?" I said I had. We went down to the street. Bill Quint told me he was living in the Miners' Hotel in Forest Street. His way home ran past my hotel, so we walked down together. In front of my hotel a beefy fellow with the look of a plain-clothes man stood on the curb and talked to the occupant of a Stutz touring car."That's Whisper in the car," Bill Quint told me.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."Uh-huh," the gray man agreed, "and so's dynamite."
What People are Saying About This
"An acknowledged literary landmark." NY Times Book Review.
"Dashiell Hammett is an original. He is a master of the detective novel, yes, but also one hell of a writer." Boston Globe
"Hammett's prose [is] clean and entirely unique. His characters [are] as sharply and economically defined as any in American fiction."
The New York Times