Picture this: a mysterious man in a fedora, smoking a cigarette, standing beneath a flashing neon sign, with a flask of scotch tucked in one pocket and a .38 pistol in the other.
Come shake hands with the Continental Op.
Actually, a quick nod of the head and passing hello would be wiser. The Continental Op isn't one for warm handshakes and friendly chitchat. As the private eye investigator in Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest, the nameless Continental Op enters the novel as a stranger in a new city called Personville. He's a gritty, no-nonsense, tough-as-nails detective on a mission to rid Personville of its corrupt riffraff.
Set in Prohibition-era America when organized crime was at its peak, Red Harvest was published in 1929 and offers a cynical portrayal of the kind of corruption that could be found in countless cities across the county. The only honest citizen in Personville has been brutally murdered, and it takes the dedication of a steely stranger to expose the corruption and purge the city of crime. It's a lonely battle to take on the big shots and beat them at their own game, but it's a challenge that the Op is ready for.
And if you want a job done, the Op is the one to do it.
Dashiell Hammett is the one you want spinning this yarn, too. A few words about "Dash" as his close friends called him. The dashing, dapper Dash worked as an operative for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency from 1915 to 1922. The Pinkertons, as they were called for short, were the largest private law enforcement agency in America during the late-18th and early-19th centuries. Dashiell's work at the detective agency gave him inspiration for his writing, and he drew on the locations and events he experienced as a Pinkerton operative to create the realism and authenticity of Red Harvest.
So strap yourselves in for a wild ride back in time to the rough and tough world of 1920s America, where mobsters and bootleggers ruled the cities, and honest men and women were few and far between.
We'd all like to think that in a detective novel, the wicked will be punished and the good will prevail. So we expect our heroes to be model citizens who fight for justice, and we hope to see murderous criminals sent off to prison by novel's end, right?
But Hammett wasn't a fan of that clear black-and-white separation between good and bad. He preferred to keep us guessing. So even though the villains are definitely corrupt, we sometimes find ourselves sympathizing with them when we're reading a Hammett novel. And as for the so-called good guys, policemen turn out to be dishonest, and most importantly, the hero of our story, the Continental Op, has his own fair share of flaws and weaknesses.
What this means is that the boundary between heroes and villains is as blurry as driving through thick fog, and this huge gray area creates an atmosphere of moral ambiguity. We can't always tell who is in the right and who is in the wrong—and never more so than in Red Harvest.
This moral uncertainty is what keeps Red Harvest so relevant to our modern lives. Usually people in real life are never perfectly good or purely evil. Part of being human means that we're imperfect and flawed. So even though Hammett's novel takes place over half a century from today, there's a sharp realism to the characters that makes them still believable to us. People are rarely as cut-and-dried as we want them to be, so why not have our novels reflect that, too?
Dashing Dashiell's Background
Here's some handy dandy background info about Dash that also serves as the basis for a PBS episodes on Hammett in the "American Masters" series.
Need Some References?
This decent online resource provides bibliography information on Hammett and his major works
This 1930 gangster film was very loosely based on Red Harvest.
The plot of this 1961 Japanese film, directed by Akira Kurosawa, was influenced by Hammett's Red Harvest.
The Dollars Trilogy
Clint Eastwood plays the Op-inspired "Man with No Name" in Sergio Leone's Dollars Trilogy.
Red Harvest Book Cover
Who doesn't love a good vintage book cover? This one is from the 1943 edition of Red Harvest.
The Dapper Dash…
… in his signature white fedora.