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


by Dashiell Hammett

Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett (1929) marked Hammett’s transition from short stories to novels. His portrayal of the Continental Op as a “hard-boiled” detective eventually became a prototype for many detective stories to come. A former detective, Hammett knew his stuff.

Read: Buy it used or on Amazon. (Reading time: ~4 hours)

Reflect: Check out the conversation starters below.

Weigh In: Share your thoughts using the form below!

Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett - Tea Tonic and Toxin Podcast

Start Reading!

At no extra cost to you, Tea, Tonic & Toxin will earn an affiliate commission if you buy your Tea, Tonic & Toxin books using the button below. Thank you for supporting our labor of love!

Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett: Share Your Thoughts

Tell us what you think about the book, and we may share your thoughts in our next episode and send you a fabulous sticker! (It really is a pretty awesome sticker.)

Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett - Tea Tonic and Toxin Podcast
Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett - Tea Tonic and Toxin Podcast
Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett - Tea Tonic and Toxin Podcast

Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett

Here are some conversation starters and questions!

Language, Voice, and Tone

  • Hammett had worked as an operative for Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency. The narrator is an operative (PI) of the Continental Detective Agency’s San Francisco office. He’s one of the first hardboiled detectives, followed by Hammett’s Sam Spade, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, and many others.
  • “Poisonville’s prize fighting was done in a big wooden ex-casino in what had once been an amusement park on the edge of town. When I got there at eight-thirty, most of the population seemed to be on hand, packed tight in close rows of folding chairs on the main floor, packed tighter on benches in two dinky balconies. Smoke. Stink. Heat. Noise.”
  • In an Atlantic essay, Ted Gioia talks about the transition from an Anglocentric to an American world. “No one told stories in that crisp, uncluttered way before 1926 [publication year of The Sun Also Rises]. But soon, other ways of pushing a narrative forward would seem slow-paced and old-fashioned.”

Booze and Blood

Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett is set during Prohibition (1919-1933), which banned the manufacture, transport, and sale of alcohol. This ban led to unprecedented levels of organized crime. Racketeering and bootlegging became widespread problems across the US.

Characters drink constantly, including the Op, who always carries a flask of Scotch. The entire town revolves around the black market. The Op also drinks laudanum (opium tincture) with Dinah the night after the big meeting with all the local gangsters.

In 1921, “To beat the miners [and end a labor strike], [Elihu] had to let his hired thugs run wild. … They took the city for their spoils.” Personville becomes Poisonville when lives are expendable. “[S]warthy foreign-looking men in laborers’ clothes” are used as decoys, and they’re all killed. Home isn’t a sanctuary. No one is safe indoors or out.

In Personville, Honest Man → Cop → Criminal

What is it about being in Personville that turns a cop into a criminal? Do they see too much corruption and become disillusioned? Is the lust for power contagious? Is it possible for a code of ethics to exist in a place as corrupt as Personville?

Dinah says: “I knew the dick—MacSwain. […] He had been a pretty good guy, straight as ace-deuce-trey-four-five, till he got on the force. Then he went the way of the rest of them. (11)

The Perfect Guy for the Cleanup Job

In Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett, Elihu Willsson hires the Op to clean up Personville. The Op agrees so long as he can “have a free hand—no favors to anybody—run the job as I pleased.” Only a stranger like the Op has no motives tied to the town. The Op is the only person in Poisonville who can rid the city of its crime.

What’s his attitude toward power and wealth? What’s his moral code? 

A+ Detective Work

“What kind of gunman would use a .32 [to kill Donald Willsson]?” (Albury used the bank gun; he knew about certified check; he called Mrs. Willsson and Whisper.)

“[Tim Noonan] didn’t say Whisper. I’ve heard women call Thaler Max, but I’ve never heard a man here call him anything but Whisper. Tim didn’t say Max. He said MacS—the first part of MacSwain—and died before he could finish it.”

The old man laughed savagely and began blustering again. …

I laughed at him. Now I had it. The old boy was scared stiff. Fright was the something behind his clowning. That was why he blustered, and why he wouldn’t let them take the body away. He wanted it there to look at, to keep panic away, visible proof of his ability to defend himself. I knew where I stood.

The Op’s Goal: Harvest

The Op’s job is technically over after he figures out that Albury murdered Donald (roughly 1/3 the way through the book). Yet the Op decides to stay in town to clean up the city. The word “harvest” is used metaphorically to refer to the Continental Op’s retributive and diabolical plan to turn everyone against each other.

“I don’t like the way Poisonville has treated me. I’ve got my chance now, and I’m going to even up. … You want to be let alone. There was a time when I wanted to be let alone. If I had been, maybe now I’d be riding back to San Francisco. But I wasn’t. Especially I wasn’t let alone by that fat Noonan. He’s had two tries at my scalp in two days. … Now it’s my turn to run him ragged, and that’s exactly what I’m going to do. Poisonville is ripe for the harvest. It’s a job I like, and I’m going to it.” (Op to Dinah)

The Op’s Plan: Turn the Thugs Against One Other

“Personville had only some forty thousand inhabitants. It shouldn’t be hard to spread news. Ten o’clock found me out spreading it.”

Noonan says: “Everybody’s killing everybody. Where’s it going to end? I’m sick of this butchering. I can’t stand any more of it.” The Op manipulates Noonan, suggesting a “peace conference out of which at least a dozen killings ought to grow.” Noonan, Elihu, Whisper, Pete the Finn, and Reno Starkey attend. Elihu suggests a frank conversation “without turning Personville into a slaughterhouse.”

“I’ve got to have a wedge that can be put between Pete and Yard, Yard and Noonan, Pete and Noonan, Pete and Thaler …. If we can smash things up enough—break the combination—they’ll have their knives in each other’s backs, doing our work for us.”

“[E]verybody sat around and behaved and watched everybody else while I juggled death and destruction.” (20.32)

Is the Op cleaning up Personville, or is he complicit in poisoning Personville? Is he a hero? An antihero? Something else altogether?

The Fascinating Femme Fatale

A femme fatale (“deadly woman”) is attractive, aggressive, and sexually provocative. In Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett, Dinah uses her charms to serve her own interests, but Hammett complicates her in surprising ways. Dinah has lots of “boyfriends,” including the narrator, but there’s zero sexual tension. She also doesn’t look like the typical femme fatale. Why is she so obsessed with getting more money? How do you feel about Dinah – and why?

“Her coarse hair – brown – needed trimming and was parted crookedly. One side of her upper lip had been rouged higher than the other. Her dress was of a particularly unbecoming wine color, and it gaped here and there down one side, where she had neglected to snap the fasteners or they had popped open. There was a run down the front of her left stockings.”

“I can expect anything I want. And [Whisper’s] got no right to talk to me that way. He doesn’t own me. Maybe he thinks he does, but I’ll show him different.” She emptied her glass, banged it on the table, and twisted around in her chair to face me. “Is that on the level about your having $10,000 of Elihu Willsson’s money to use cleaning up the city?”

Her bloodshot eyes glistened hungrily. “And if I help you will I get some of the ten—?”

“You can’t do that, Dinah.” Rolff’s voice was thick, but gently firm, as if he were talking to a child. “That would be utterly filthy.”

“I am going to do it,” she said. “That makes me utterly filthy, does it?” Her face got red, hard, cruel. Her voice was soft, cooing: “It’s just too bad that a gentleman of your purity, even if he is a bit consumptive, has to associate with a filthy bum like me.”

Was the Op Poisoned? Or Is He Himself the Poison?

The Op tells Dinah he could have chosen other ways but the best way involved lots of killing. Do you buy his explanation? Has the town poisoned him, or is he only making excuses? Should he be held accountable for bringing about the deaths in Personville?

“Poisonville was beginning to boil out under the lid, and I felt so much like a native that even the memory of my very un-nice part in the boiling didn’t keep me from getting twelve solid end-to-end hours of sleep.” (14)

“I’ve arranged a killing or two in my time, when they were necessary. But this is the first time I’ve ever got the fever. It’s this damned burg. You can’t go straight here. I got myself tangled at the beginning. When old Elihu ran out on me there was nothing I could do but try to set the boys against each other. … How could I help it if the best way was bound to lead to a lot of killing?” … “If I don’t get away soon I’ll be going blood-simple [crazed by violence] like the natives.”

“There was plenty else I could do […]. But it’s easier to have them killed off, easier and surer, and, now that I’m feeling this way, more satisfying. It’s this damned town. Poisonville is right. It’s poisoned me.” (20.36)

The Op’s Careless, Cavalier, Reckless Behavior

Not long before Dinah is killed in Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett, she and the Op have this conversation:

“I know Max better than you do. I know how much chance anybody that frames him has got of staying alive long. …”

“Don’t make so much fuss over it. I’ve framed my millions and nothing’s happened to me. Get your hat and coat and we’ll feed. You’ll feel better then.”

“You’re crazy if you think I’m going out. Not with that–”

“Stop it, sister. If he’s that dangerous he’s just as likely to get you here as anywhere. So what difference does it make?”

“You know what you’re going to do? You’re going to stay here until Max is put out of the way. It’s your fault and you’ve got to look out for me. I haven’t even got Dan. He’s in the hospital.”

“I can’t,” I said. “I’ve got work to do. You’re all burnt up over nothing. Max has probably forgotten all about you by now. Get your hat and coat. I’m starving.”

She put her face close to mine again, and her eyes looked as if they had found something horrible in mine.

“Oh, you’re rotten!” she said. “You don’t give a damn what happens to me. You’re using me as you use the others—that dynamite you wanted. I trusted you.”

The 17th Murder

Dinah’s death comes as a shock. The Op is a cynical, detached, no-nonsense guy, but his emotionless reaction to her murder seems troubling. Is he responsible?

“I opened my eyes in the dull light of morning sun filtered through drawn blinds. I was lying face down on the dining room floor, my head resting on my left forearm. My right arm was stretched straight out. My right hand held the round blue and white handle of Dinah Brand’s ice pick. The pick’s six-inch needle-sharp blade was buried in Dinah Brand’s left breast.”

What Was the Point of All That Killing in Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett?

In the end, the Op cleans up Personville. But how long will this state of peace last? Does the Op believe his efforts were useless? What was his real motivation? Does the end justify the means? What end would have justified the means?

The Op says to Elihu: “[T]he big boys—the ones you were afraid of—are dead. The ones that had too much on you for you to stand up to them. There are plenty of busy young men working like hell right now, trying to get into the dead men’s shoes. The more, the better. They’ll make it easier for the white-collar soldiers to take hold while everything is disorganized.” … “Then you’ll have your city back, all nice and clean and ready to go to the dogs again.” (26.40)

No Law and Order Among the Law and Order

A slap on the wrist? “I spent most of my week in Ogden trying to fix up my reports so they would not read as if I had broken as many Agency rules, state laws and human bones as I had. … They didn’t fool the Old Man. He gave me merry hell.”

Is the Old Man worse than the Continental Op? “The Old Man was the manager of the Continental’s San Francisco branch. He was also known as Pontius Pilate, because he smiled pleasantly when he sent us out to be crucified on suicidal jobs. He was a gentle, polite, elderly person with no more warmth in him than a hangman’s rope. The Agency wits said he could spit icicles in July.”

About Tea, Tonic & Toxin

Tea, Tonic, and Toxin is a book club and podcast for people who love mysteries, thrillers, introspection, and good conversation. Each month, your hosts, Sarah Harrison and Carolyn Daughters, will discuss a game-changing mystery or thriller from the 19th and 20th centuries. Together, we’ll see firsthand how the genre evolved.


Along the way, we’ll entertain ideas, prospects, theories, doubts, and grudges, along with the occasional guest. And we hope to entertain you, dear friend. We want you to experience the joys of reading some of the best mysteries and thrillers ever written.

Tea, Tonic, and Toxin Book Club and Podcast - Mysteries and Thrillers

Teasers & Tidbits