Thursday, June 30, 2022

Two Shots of Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett

Dashiell Hammett’s first novel, Red Harvest, and an earlier series called, “The Cleansing of Poisonville,” published in the pulp magazine Black Mask, are the same story.

Both tell how the Continental Op – Hammett’s unnamed operative for the fictional Continental Detective Agency – comes to a small Western city called Personville (nicknamed “Poisonville”) to help rid it of gangsters, crooked cops and corrupt politicians.

In Poisonville, the young publisher of the city’s local paper is waging a campaign to clean up the town. The publisher’s father owns the paper, the mine, and several other prominent businesses. The father also has the leading citizens and top officials in his pocket. But the father is old and losing his grip. Racketeers have moved in and divided up the city.

Unwilling to side with any one group the Op sets about turning the gangs against one another so they will destroy themselves.

It is a complicated story filled with violence and double crosses.

The four Black Mask stories – “The Cleansing of Poisonville” (November 1927); “Crime Wanted – Male or Female” (December 1927); “Dynamite” (January 1928); and “The 19th Murder” (February 1928) – are included in their original form in The Big Book of the Continental Op (2017) compiled by Richard Layman and Julie M. Rivett.

When the stories appeared in Black Mask, they caught the attention of a book editor who approached Hammett with the idea of publishing them as a novel. But first the editor wanted Hammett to make some changes. He suggested cutting some of the violence to make the story more believable, according to Layman and Rivett.

The book, called Red Harvest after Hammett submitted a page of alternate titles, was published in February, 1929, by Alfred A. Knopf.

Reading the stories and the book at the same time shows interesting changes made by Hammett in his transition from pulp writer to novelist.

Key cuts were the dynamiting of police headquarters and the bomb killing of one of the three gang leaders. The Op’s escape over the rooftops from an ambush was also cut. And the shootout at the Silver Arrow Club was streamlined and in the book.

There are small changes on almost every page of the novel. Often they are as simple as a word choice or a rewritten sentence. Most of these changes tightened the writing, eliminating repetitions in dialogue, but they also took away some of the flavor.

Hammett was always good at creating realistic dialogue. In his pulp stories, he used a good deal of the underworld slang of his era. The amount of slang was reduced in the book, or altered to clarify a point. The book editor may have felt that readers of the novel would be less familiar with the slang than the readers of Black Mask.

The changes made the writing a little less colorful and took some of the rough edge off the tale, but did not damage the storytelling. Hammett was still Hammett, and the tough, lean writing style was still there. Even Hammett’s earliest stories showed this talent.

For the slang that remained, Layman and Rivett, the editors of The Big Book..., found some of the words and phrases needed footnotes for current readers to understand them.

Future readers of Hammett may need even more annotations. The time may come when a Hammett story will require as many footnotes as a Shakespeare play.

But with our without the explanations, Hammett’s work is always a pleasure to read.