New & Notable: Red Harvest
By Dashiell Hammett
New York: Vintage Books, 1992
From Professor John Weaver:
I was a second year law student with some time on my hands.
That’s not the usual case, but it happened. It was mid afternoon, too early to go to a bar, so I went to the local public library (Did I say I was also low on funds?). There I found Ross McDonald’s Lew Archer, the first Hard Boiled Detective (hereafter “HBD”—I did learn some things in law school), I had ever encountered.
I worked through McDonald, then back to Raymond Chandler, and finally back to Dashiell Hammett, the creator of Sam Spade and the Continental Op.
The Continental Op is the prototype of the HBD. The HBD is a quintessentially American character. Hammett and others created the character; Hammett, then Chandler, and then McDonald further developed the HBD. I have continued to read HBDs including V.I. Warshawski, David Brandstetter, Spenser (with an S like the Poet), and E.Z. Rawlins. The HBD is usually a loner, with a sense of duty to his or her job and, depending on the HBD to some additional code of obligations.
Of all of these I have chosen Red Harvest because it shows the HBD at his best and his worst. The Op is faithful to his job, but not always to the law. He tries to maintain his distance but he cannot always do it. In the end he triumphs but he has changed in the process.
Like lawyers, the Op often finds himself in situations of moral ambiguity. Sometimes, as in Red Harvest, his resolution is not always what we would have done, but it is within the code that he has adopted.
I also chose this book because reading helped me step away from law school while I was a student and reading still helps me step away and gain perspective while I am teaching. I urge you all to find some pursuit that takes you away from what you do every day, and yet which also lets you come back to your pursuit with a new perspective on what are doing and what you will do.
From the Publisher:
When the last honest citizen of Poisonville was murdered, the Continental Op stayed on to punish the guilty–even 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:
Hammett was born on May 27, 1894 in St. Mary’s County, Maryland. An acclaimed crime novelist, he was a Pinkerton detective for eight years and used these experiences intensively in his writing. Although stricken with ill health during his life, he managed to elevate the crime novel to a work of literature. Among many of his most famous books are the Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man, and The Glass Key. Several of his works later became major motion pictures. Hammett spent a short time in prison for his alleged Communist Party membership and died on January 10, 1961 in New York City.