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Literature / Red Harvest

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This damned burg’s getting me. If I don’t get away soon I’ll be going blood-simple like the natives.
The Continental Op

Red Harvest is a seminal novel by Dashiell Hammett, first published in 1929. It is narrated by The Continental Op, a recurring character in Hammett's world. When called to the mining town of Personville (or as the residents more accurately call it, "Poisonville"), the Op discovers that the city is being run down by criminal gangs. The detective is hired to clean up the place, and mayhem ensues.

The novel has had a great deal of influence on later fiction, ranging from noir to samurai films. Red Harvest is thought to have been an influence on Akira Kurosawa's film Yojimbo, and combined with The Glass Key is a heavy influence on the Coen Brothers' noir film Miller's Crossing. Red Harvest also coined the term "blood simple" (after which the Coen Brothers' film debut is named); the phrase refers to the addled, fearful mindset people are in after a prolonged immersion in violent situations. An official film adaptation starring Jack Nicholson and directed by Bernardo Bertolucci was planned in The '80s but lost favour in the wake of the Box Office Bomb of Heaven's Gate.


Red Harvest is not related to Star Wars: Red Harvest or Blue Harvest: Horror Beyond Imagination.

This novel provides examples of:

  • Alas, Poor Villain:
    • Reno, the last villain to die, is mortally wounded and tells his story to the Op as a way of staying brave. The Op understands and seems sympathetic.
    • It's possible to feel somewhat sorry for Noonan by the time he dies, considering that he had a legitimate, if misdirected, reason to hate Whisper and genuinely wanted to make peace with other feuding parties.
  • Amoral Attorney: Charles Proctor Dawn is little more than a crook and blackmailer.
    He's the guy that the joke was wrote about: 'Is he a criminal lawyer?' 'Yes, very.'
  • Anti-Hero: The Continental Op fights against a rogue's gallery of thugs, but uses brutal and amoral tactics in the process.
  • Big Beautiful Woman: Dinah Brand, though to the Op she's more of a Brawn Hilda (he describes her as large— taller than him, though he's admittedly on the short side— and strong, with thick, muscular legs that constantly make her stockings run).
  • Advertisement:
  • Black-and-Gray Morality: Our protagonist is an anti-hero working for a ruthless industrialist who came to power using unscrupulous means. The antagonists are corrupt cops and gangsters that worked for the industrialist.
  • Chummy Commies: Bill Quint is a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, a socialist organization, but this is presented totally matter-of-fact, and never used to characterize him as evil. This marks the book as clearly pre-Cold War, and reflects Hammett's left-wing politics to the point where Marxist interpretations of the book are not uncommon.
  • Clean Up the Town: By applying his trademark method of stirring things up.
  • Code of Honour: Despite his rather questionable means, the Op does have his own code that he follows. It is for this reason he refuses personal payment for the job. He insists that Elihu bill the Continental Agency instead.
  • Company Town: Personville, essentially the fiefdom of industrialist Elihu Wilsson, "Czar of Poisonville".
  • Divide and Conquer: The Op's strategy— keep the factions at each other's throats and ideally get them to take care of each other.
  • Dirty Cop: Chief Noonan and his police force. In fact, they're one of the factions the Op needs to take care of.
  • Dragon Ascendant: Reno Starkey, once he kills Lew Yard when the gangster attempts to eliminate him.
  • Enemy Civil War: Once he gets enough incidents going, the Op has Elihu's enemies at each others throats.
  • A Fistful of Rehashes: Just about any plot in which a character plays multiple unsavory sides against each other is referencing this story.
  • Frameup: Several, including who killed Donald Wilsson, Tim Noonan, and Dinah Brand. The Op does this to Noonan during the "peace conference" by saying the Police Chief knew all along that Whisper was being framed for Tim's murder. Noonan knew nothing about it at all.
  • Gambit Pileup: While the Op is the catalyst, all the other factions are trying to manipulate each other as well.
  • Guns Akimbo: Big Nick shoots at the Op with a pistol in each hand. It doesn't work out for him.
  • He Who Fights Monsters: As the violence escalates the Op worries that the more he stays in the town, the more he'll be too affected by the violence:
    The Op: Play with murder enough and it gets you one of two ways. It makes you sick, or you get to like it.
  • I Did What I Had to Do: The Op's methods get to him, until Dinah points this out: Since Elihu refuses to aid the detective, the Op has to resort to unsavory means to accomplish his goal.
  • I Don't Like the Sound of That Place: Poisonville.
  • Informed Attractiveness: Zig-zagged. We're told that Dinah Brand is a beautiful woman by a minor character, but the Op is unimpressed when he actually meets her. Later, the Op notes that Dinah has cleaned herself up and actually become attractive.
  • I Own This Town: Elihu Wilsson has so much power and influence in Personville that he's known as the "Czar of Poisonville." He initially hires the Op to clean the town up for him after the gangs he used as strikebreakers start getting a bit too unruly for his tastes.
  • It Gets Easier: The book coined the term "blood simple" to refer to a state of mind in which violence and murder get not only easier, but downright intoxicating. The Op starts to worry that he's getting that way from spending too much time in Poisonville at one point, and that's well before his job is even done.
  • Meaningful Name: Dinah the Gold Digger's ex-boyfriend is the gangster Max Thaler. A "thaler" is a silver coin and the origin of the word "dollar."
  • Merchant Prince: Elihu Wilsson, the "Czar of Poisonville.". A powerful and rich industrialist, he had influence over half of California and is the de facto rule of a city until he lost control of the corrupt officials and gangs that helped him put down a worker's strike.
  • Mob War: Two of the factions are traditional mob gangs, and another a bootlegging operation. Once Noohan gets picked off, the gangs are the only sides left in action.
  • No Indoor Voice: Elihu, who bellows so loudly that the Op often scolds him for it. At one point he puts his fingers in his ears until Elihu quiets down.
  • No Name Given:
    • We don't learn the Continental Op's name, nor does anyone refer to him as "the Continental Op."
    • The Continental Detective Agency's leader is known only as the Old Man.
  • Only in It for the Money: Dinah admits freely that she's only ever interested in money. She provides the Op with the intel he needs (even on her former boyfriend Thaler), but only in hopes of him paying her. They bicker over the price constantly.
  • Outlaw Town: Personville isn't the first such place Hammett created, but it might well be the Trope Codifier.
  • Peace Conference: After a series of incidents, the various factions plus the Op meet in an attempt to end the bloodshed. The Op uses this as an opportunity to further escalate the violence.
  • Phrase Catcher: The name of the town is Personville, but as the Op says in the first line of the novel, Poisonville is a lot more apt.
  • Pinkerton Detective: The Continental Detective Agency is a thinly-veiled expy of the Pinkertons. Hammett had served as a Pinkerton detective before beginning his writing career.
  • Playing Both Sides: The Op plays four or five sides against each other.
  • Pretty in Mink: The only time the Op describes Dinah as pretty is when she's wearing a fur coat.
  • Red Right Hand: Whisper is the most dangerous villain in town. An old injury causes his speech to come out in a hoarse whisper.
  • Screw Politeness, I'm a Senior!: Elihu Wilsson is constantly making blunt demands.
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: Charles Proctor Dawn, although given that he's a cheap, crook lawyer, this may be more of a case of Delusions of Eloquence.
  • Set a Mook to Kill a Mook: One of the Trope Codifiers. The whole point of the conflict is to get the gang leaders (who know Elihu's secrets) to kill each other. Once they're out of the way, the industrialist is set to call in the authorities.
  • She Cleans Up Nicely: The Op notes that Dinah actually does look attractive once she's earned some money, gets a fur coat and cleans herself up.
  • Stout Strength: The Op stands only 5'6 and states that some of his 190 pounds is fat, but not all of it. He's certainly a capable fighter. And Dinah Brand is a chunky gal who packs quite a punch herself.
  • Throwing the Fight: As part of a plan, the Op contacts a boxer paid to take a dive. Using some blackmail, the Op convinces the boxer to win instead. And it gets the boxer killed.
  • Town with a Dark Secret: The reason why criminals and dirty cops rule Poisonville— they worked for Elihu to stop a union strike. Since they know his dirty secrets, Elihu doesn't bring in the authorities to clean up the town.
  • Tyrannical Town Tycoon: In the backstory, wealthy industrialist Elihu Wilsson controlled the town of Personville (known to the locals as Poisonville), including the mayor, police, and local gang leaders. So complete was his control, he was called the Czar of Poisonville. But by the present day, Elihu's lost control: the leaders of the mob factions and corrupt cops rebelled against him, and they know enough about Elihu's dirty secrets to bring him down if he tries to do anything to them through legal means.
  • The Vamp: Dinah Brand, who's apparently gotten the favors of quite a few men in town. However, the Op is thoroughly unimpressed by her appearance and powers of persuasion.
  • Villainous Glutton: Dinah Brand occasionally talks about how hungry she is. At one point she demands that the Op take her out for an enormous quantity of chow mein. In general, she can pack away food just about as well as the Op himself.
  • War Is Hell: The conflict between the various factions gets very violent, sometimes explosively. It actually gets to be too much for Noonan, who was willing to give in to any demand in the end.
  • Where the Hell Is Springfield?: We're never told where Personville is located. It was based on Butte, Montana.
  • Wretched Hive: Upon arriving in Personville, the Op takes some time to get a sense of the town. Within minutes, he notes from the general decay and lackluster police how crapsack the city is. There's a reason why everyone calls it Poisonville instead.
  • Wrongfully Accused: not that Max Thaler doesn't have a fair amount of corpses to his name but he didn't actually kill either Donald Wilsson or Dinah Brand. He even avenges the latter's death by fatally wounding Reno Starkey.
  • You're Cute When You're Angry: Inverted— the Op tells Dinah when she loses her temper at one point that she looks "downright brutal."


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