Before I first read Red Harvest (sometime in the early '80s, I believe) my favorite book was Breakfast of Champions. I used to think everyone on the planet should read that book and get off on it as much as I did. I carried a spare copy in my trunk at all times to loan or give away (which often turned out to be the same thing).
But I never felt that way about Red Harvest. Though it bumped Breakfast out of the top spot, I knew it wasn't everybody's barrel of rum. But it was mine, and has been ever since. And though I have about a dozen copies, they're all different editions, and I'm stingy with them.
Sometime in the mid-'80s I laid down two hundred iron men for a nice first edition (sans dust jacket), which was more than I'd ever paid for a book. These days, ABE dealers are asking between 800 and 1500 bucks for a copy in the same condition (very good to fine), which is two or three times the inflation rate. I read recently that The Maltese Falcon sold about 10,000 copies in its first two years, which I assume includes more than one printing. Red Harvest must have sold a lot less. (Anyone have info on this?)
That first edition is bound in appropriate blood-red cloth, with a cool image (in yellow) of a grinning skull and crossbones. The same image appears on the title page (in red), and in reversed colors on the cover of The Dain Curse. I have several other Knopf books from this period, including the other Hammett novels, and these are the only books so decorated. Was the skull and crossbones used only for the Continental Op? It would be nice to think so. He certainly deserved it.
Red Harvest began life as four novelettes in Black Mask, the first of which was "The Cleansing of Poisonville" in November 1927. The next three issues brought "Crime Wanted--Male or Female," "Dynamite" and "The 19th Murder." Hammett is said to have done some heavy editing (and the publisher probably did more) in turning them into a book, but it seems clear he had a novel in mind right from the start.
Along the way, there are murder mysteries old and new, a prizefighting scam and a war between bootleggers, but the overall storyline, stretching from beginning to end, is that the town of Personville (or "Poisonville") is hopelessly under the thumb of rival criminal gangs, and the Continental Op is determined to pry it loose. He uses whatever means necessary, legal or otherwise, and lets the bodies fall where they may.
Critics will tell you the novel is strong on action and weak on characterization, but I don't buy it. The Op's character is on full display here. He's faced with much tougher choices and takes much greater personal risks than his highly-touted successor Samuel Spade. The choices he makes and the things he does for the greater good change him to the point where he finds himself going "blood simple" like the rest of Poisonville's inhabitants. Could Spade survive all that? We never find out, because beyond overcoming an infatuation with his curvy client, Spade is never put to the test.
Throughout his career, the Op's only real fear has been turning into an emotionless husk of a human being like his boss, known only as the Old Man. In my view, the events of Red Harvest drive him to a point beyond his worth fears, where any means justify the ends, and emotions are merely a nuisance. That's the state we find him in twenty-five years later, when the agency brings him out of retirement and sends him to Portland to deal with their troubles in "The Continental Opposite." I'll be digging deeper into that post-Harvest Op in the next story, "The Continental Opera."
Come on back tomorrow, when I'll be wallowing in my eternal disappointment over The Dain Curse. And before I forget, here's a big THANK YOU to Jeremy Burwell for sending a pic of the great Perma Books cover above. In case you were worried, that's not the Op being smacked around by Poisonville's Dinah Brand. That's her live-in laudanum addict, the "lunger" Dan Rolff. The poor sucker is in love with her.