Tea Tonic and Toxin: Mystery and Thriller Podcast and Book Club

Read the Crime Novel Red Harvest and Tell Us What You Think

Crime Novel Red Harvest - Dashiell Hammett - Tea Tonic and Toxin Podcast and Book Club

Dashiell Hammett’s crime novel Red Harvest is more than just a gripping detective story. It’s also a political statement, inspired in part by a true incident – the 1920 Anaconda Road massacre, triggered by a labor dispute in the mining town of Butte, Montana.

The story begins with the main character (the Continental Op, based in San Francisco) being contacted by a newspaper publisher in the town of Personville (nicknamed “Poisonville” by the locals). The publisher, Donald Willsson, tells the Op he wants to meet with him. And even though the Op has no idea what the meeting is about, he immediately starts his journey from the big city to the small town.

The Continental Op – Prototype for ‘Hard-Boiled’ Detectives

The Continental Op is unusual for two reasons. First of all, he’s the narrator – but one whose name remains hidden throughout the book. Second, his personality is so “hard-boiled” that his character became the prototype for detectives who appeared in many future detective stories. (That includes stories written by authors other than Dashiell Hammett, too.)

The Op’s hard-boiled temperament is perfect for the challenges he faces as he begins to solve the multiple murders that start occurring. The descriptions and dialogues in Red Harvest immediately made me think of Sam Spade’s character in Hammett’s 1930 novel The Maltese Falcon.

The Op’s description of the town when he arrives is visual and gritty: “The city wasn’t pretty. Most of its builders had gone in for gaudiness. … The result was an ugly city of 40,000 people, set in an ugly notch between two ugly mountains that had been all dirtied up by mining.”

After Willsson’s murder (which happens before the Op even meets him), the Op’s investigation reveals that his own employer – the Continental Detective Agency – had been promised a fee of $10,000 by Willsson’s father (a local industrialist) IF the agency succeeded in getting rid of the gangs that were terrorizing the town.

Red Harvest was first published in serial form, a year before it was published as a novel. It ran in four parts (November 1927-February 1928), in Black Mask Magazine – a monthly publication specializing in Western, detective, and adventure stories.

(Before Red Harvest was published in 1929, the Continental Op had already appeared in more than 30 serialized stories in the Black Mask – beginning in 1923.)

Why the Crime Novel Red Harvest Is Important

Two accolades received by the crime novel Red Harvest are worth mentioning here. In October 2005, Time published an article that included the book among its “100 Best English-Language Novels from 1923 to the Present.” And in March 1944, Andre Gidé (who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1947) described the book as “a remarkable achievement, the last word in atrocity, cynicism, and horror.”

At the end of the book, when the gang leaders are all dead, the Continental Op calls in the National Guard … resulting in martial law being declared in Personville. One review says that “Red Harvest is a chilling and cynical look at how organized crime gains footholds in company towns like Personville, where corruption spreads and thrives like a virus.”

Learn More at Tea, Tonic & Toxin

Here at Tea, Tonic & Toxin, we’re excited to be able to share this book with you in our podcast and in our book club!Don’t miss the discussion we’ll be having about this book with our readers! Check out our page devoted to Red Harvest and be sure to subscribe now so you don’t miss each new episode when it comes out!

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