Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Expanding your Big Read

Dashiell Hammett grew up fast and hard on the streets of Philadelphia and Baltimore, where his family situation forced him to quit school and go to work at the age of 14. At age 21 he joined the Pinkerton Detective Agency and worked on and off as a detective for them over the next six years. Though the work seemed to suit him, Hammett left Pinkerton in 1921 after determining that the agency had played a perhaps murderous strike-breaking role during an operation in Butte, Montana.

Hammett's Pinkerton experience inspired his early writings, in particular, his nameless detective, the Continental Op. Short, fat, balding, and alcohol-fueled, the Op is the prototype hard-boiled PI and his adventures are detailed in numerous short stories and, later, in two full-length novels.

Red Harvest is set in Montana. Personville is a company mining town, ruthlessly controlled by one man. In 1921, union organizers challenged this authority and mounted a strike. The boss fought back by unleashing an army of hired guns on the town - eight months later, organized labor in Personville was a "spent firecracker" but the army of thugs opted to stay and enjoy the spoils. Dismal, dangerous, and thoroughly corrupt, Personville became Poisonville.

That's the situation when the Continental Op comes to town at the invitation of the new editor of the local newspaper, but before he even has a chance to talk to him, the man is gunned down in the streets. Being of the detective persuasion, the Op is naturally curious; he asks a few questions and the bullets start flying his way. That makes it personal, and before long the Op launches a campaign to clean up Poisonville, to "ventilate" the town, gut the place from Adam's apple to ankles, and purge the evil by turning it back upon itself. A few whispers, a couple of nudges, and the town is well on its way to a full-blown gang war.

Hammett was strongly pro-union and his political sympathies were with the working class, but Red Harvest is not a political novel. There are no good guys in Personville and the Continental Op's crusade is fraught with moral ambiguity: near the end, the Op himself wonders if he's just gone "blood simple" -- and you'll wonder too.

But if you start this book, you'll be there with him at the end. I'm a quiet, peace-loving librarian and gang warfare, non-stop action and high body counts are not on the list of features that typically attract me. Jane Austen is on my favorite authors list, but, Reader, I'm telling you: Red Harvest is a masterpiece! Hammett's style is hard, bright and fast, with the rhythm of the streets rocking behind it. You can read it in an evening; you'll remember it much longer than that.

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