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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, although the latter's title may have been intended as a Shout-Out to it (George Lucas was an acknowledged fan of Akira Kurosawa, who is believed to have been influenced by the novel).

This novel provides examples of:

  • Affably Evil: “Evil” might be a stretch but Noonan is a dirty cop looking to set up Whisper for a fall whether by legitimate or illegitimate means and has aligned with gangster Lew Yard to get it done. Nonetheless, he is consistently polite and jovial to the Op even while everything’s going to hell for him, though he does try to have the Op killed not long after their first meeting.
  • 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.
    • Dinah Brand is a snaky manipulator who is nowhere near as clever as she thinks she is but it’s still sad when she takes an ice pick to the chest for her troubles.
    • Max Thaler dies avenging Dinah's death despite being sold out by the latter to the Op and basically all ties between them being severed.
  • 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, including lying about a man genuinely wanting to end the violence which gets that man killed.
  • Bad Cop/Incompetent Cop: Shortly after coming to town the Op gets a look at some of Personville's finest - one needs a shave, another has a uniform that's missing some buttons and desperately needs washing, and the third one directs traffic while smoking a cigarette. The Op gives up checking them out after that; his opinion does not improve over the course of the book either.
  • Belligerent Sexual Tension: The Op and Dinah share this but she dies before anything comes of it.
  • Big Bad Ensemble: The various factions— Whisper, Lew Yard, Pete the Finn, and Chief Noonan— are equal obstacles the Op has to overcome. As characters start getting bumped off, others like Reno Starkey rise up to take their place until there aren't any more thugs left.
  • 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).
  • 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. The Op himself states at one point that he'd love to wrap the whole thing up by sending his client to the gallows but it doesn't come to pass.
  • 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".
  • Da Chief: The Old Man operates as a private agency version of this, expecting his agents to adhere to a strict code of ethics in the field. The Op notes he appreciates the idea but practically is likely breaking every rule the Old Man has set during his time in Personville. The Op tells his fellow compatriots not to reveal any of it to their superiors for concern the Old Man will object. Sure enough, after the Op gets back to San Francisco, the Old Man apparently gives him “merry hell” for his actions there.
  • Dirty Cop: Chief Noonan and his police force. In fact, they're one of the factions the Op needs to take care of.
  • Dirty Old Man: The Op discovers love letters written by Elihu Wilsson written to Dinah Brand. Though the reader never gets to read any of the content directly, the Op notes they’re pretty raunchy to the point of being funny.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • First-Person Smartass: The Op isn’t afraid to tell the reader if he thinks a character is full of it.
  • A Fistful of Rehashes: Just about any plot in which a character plays multiple unsavory sides against each other is referencing this story.
  • False Flag Operation: Noonan and Yard conspire to frame Whisper’s crew with a bank heist by having Reno bring Whisper’s man Jerry along to be killed.
  • 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.
  • The Ghost: Lew Yard is often referred to but never actually appears in person before being killed by Reno.
  • Guile Hero: Which no slouch with his guns or fists, the Op’s primary method of attack is manipulating the different factions against each other.
  • 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 becomes 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." For that matter Dinah's name isn't too far removed from "dinar".
  • 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.
  • Really Gets Around: The men believed to have been involved with Dinah Brand include Donald Wilsson, Max Thaler, Dan Rolff, Donald’s killer Robert Albury, and Elihu Wilsson himself. She spends a good portion of the novel trying to dig her claws into the Op as well.
  • Red Right Hand: Whisper is the most dangerous villain in town. An old injury causes his speech to come out in a hoarse whisper.
  • The Reveal: Several through the course of the novel.
    • Donald Wilsson was killed not by any of the criminals he was investigating for the paper but by the bank clerk Albury who was smitten with Dinah Brand and looking to extort Donald for $5,000 for her.
    • Tim Noonan was shot in a altercation with MacSwain who was confronting Tim over an affair Tim was having with MacSwain's wife only to leave her for Myrtle Jennison.
    • Dinah Brand’s most powerful admirer was Elihu Wilsson himsef.
    • Reno Starkey killed Dinah Brand.
  • 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.
  • Smug Snake:
    • Charles Proctor Dawn is a slimy lawyer who looks to take advantage of all the scandals in town to squeeze all the money he can out of people. For all his verbosity and pretentiousness, he’s just a petty blackmailer who a year prior to the events of the novel had just barely escaped jail time himself for his shenanigans. He appears in all of two scenes before the Op finds him dead of a broken neck in his office.
    • Dinah Brand is a pretty rare example in that she's a fairly sympathetic character - while she is pretty good at stringing her boyfriends along, she's nowhere near as good at keeping them under control as she thinks she is, and when the consequences of her actions start catching up to her her terrified reactions make her quite pitiable.
  • 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.
  • Teeth-Clenched Teamwork: Despite their business relationship as investigator and client, the Op and Elihu spend more time together cursing each other than anything else.
  • 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.
  • Wounded Gazelle Gambit: After spending the last third of the novel presumed dead, Thaler turns out to not be Not Quite Dead and uses this trope to get the drop on Reno. The two end up killing each other.
  • 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 (or Tim Noonan for that matter). He even avenges the latter's death by fatally wounding Reno Starkey.
    • The Op also gets accused of killing both Dinah and Dawn but since he’s the POV character, he clearly did neither. Played with quite considerably, as the Op was completely shitfaced on gin and laudanum when Dinah was killed and spends a good chunk of the novel unsure whether he did it or not. He didn't.
  • 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."