Red Harvest - Dashiell Hammett, Jeff Stone 2.5 – 3 stars (I hope Dan and Kemper don’t throw me out of the noir club before I even get in!)

I feel as though I ought to have liked _Red Harvest_ more than I did. After all it was written by Dashiell Hammett, one of the fathers of noir fiction (perhaps more famous for The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man) and, like many of his books, became the source for numerous (often excellent) film adaptations. It has an interestingly conflicted protagonist and is chock full of killing, double crosses, deception, and shoot-outs, but somehow it didn’t fully hold together for me. Our story details the entanglements entered into by the character known only as “the Continental Op” (due to the fact that he is an operative working for the Continental Detective Agency out of San Francisco, a veiled nod to Hammett’s own days working for the Pinkerton Detective Agency). The Op was a character featured in many of Hammett’s short stories, but I believe this was the only novel featuring him (though it was originally published in serial form). The Op himself is in many ways the prototypical noir protagonist: hard-boiled, not averse to violence, and ready with a quip when the occasion warrants; on the other hand he is no dashing detective able to make the dames swoon, for he’s described as overweight, middle-aged, and generally ugly in appearance. He’s a man who will do what it takes to get the job done, whether that means manhandling his clients into agreeing with his methods, lying to all and sundry in order to get the information he needs, or joining in on some endeavours not strictly legal in their methods and intentions if it will get him in good with the people he needs to bamboozle. All in all, the Op is a real piece of work…though he’s someone you’d probably rather have on your side than against it (the trick is knowing when he’s genuine about his partnership, even some of his compatriots from the Agency aren’t sure of this).

In this tale the Op finds himself in the town of Personville, aptly named Poisonville by all and sundry, one of those little burgs that got itself under the thumb of a domineering and greedy ‘patriarch’ who subsequently had to relinquish some control to various crooked cops, gamblers and boozerunners in order to keep things going. Now the patriarch’s son (who for reasons unknown had asked the Op to come to town) has been murdered and his pop wants revenge. Enter the Op who decides this town needs a change of management and upgrades his assignment from finding a murderer to cleaning out the sewer that is Poisonville. The Op proceeds to get the lay of the land and inveigle himself into every criminal nook and cranny he can, cannily playing off each faction against the other, planting seeds of doubt (both true and manufactured) in the right ears and hoping to be able to simply step back and watch the fireworks. Things turn out to be a little more complicated for the Op than he had hoped and start to look very bleak indeed for our “hero” up until the very end.

This tale of a stranger coming to a corrupt town and proceeding to clean up by playing one side against the other is a great set-up (perhaps most effectively portrayed in film in Kurasawa’s Yojimbo, but also used in A Fistful of Dollars and Last Man Standing to name but a few), but I just wasn’t totally sucked in by the book. I think D_Davis nailed it in his review with the observation that this book was just longer than it needed to be (not surprising considering it was originally published serially). The twisted plot of lying and deception could probably have been pared down, and tightened up as a result, and I therefore found that some points sagged a bit. The Op is an interesting character though, someone who is world-weary and damaged enough to be willing to do whatever is deemed pragmatically ‘necessary’ regardless of how dirty it might be, and yet at the same time you can tell that he wishes the world wasn’t thus and he wants to be the 'good guy'…whatever that might ultimately mean to him. I plan on eventually checking out his further adventures as well as some of Hammett’s other more famous noir tales. I just wish I had been blown away by this one.