Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Life in Poisonville

"Play with murder enough and it gets you one of two ways. It makes you sick, or you get to like it."

Dashiell Hammett's 1929 novel, Red Harvest, begins when our story's narrator, an unnamed detective from the Continental Agency, arrives in a small California town called Personville, pronounced and better known as Poisonville by the local population. While the detective is waiting for his client at his house, Donald Willsson, the client, is murdered. There are some obvious suspects, Willsson's gold digging wife, Mrs. Wilson, as well as a femme fatale called Dinah Brand and of course there are the local bootlegging gangsters-- Lew Yard and Pete the Finn, and a gambler monikered  Max "Whisper" Thaler. We're not a third of the way into the book before we've nabbed our killer (who is, of course, not one of the usual suspects), but there are too many bad guys in town for our detective to close the case and move on just yet. The detective cajoles the town's millionaire patriarch, the dead Donald's father, Elihu Willsson to employ him to root out the city's rampant corruption.

Turns out that Donald Willsson was one of the few reformers in town. His father Elihu, had built the city and it was a prospering mining town when city workers began striking fore better wages and living standards. Rather than give in and provide his miners with a better life, Elihu called in scabs to break the strike and gangsters to enforce his will. The strike was broken, the people's will demoralized, but the byproduct of Willsson's victory was villains staying on and taking over the city. Even the chief of police is in on the take and no one is safe from a double crossing. Thus Willsson's (albeit reluctant) acquiescence to the Continental Operative.

Though it begins like a conventional murder story, it does not stop there. A lot of people die in Red Harvest (one of the chapters is titled "The 19th Murder.") I suppose when one is birthing a genre, it is bound to be painful, and Hammett's novel is if not the first, one of the earliest novels of hardboiled noir fiction. The stories are violent, complex, and full of surprises, which are interesting in themselves, but the best reason to read the genre is the tough guy argot that permeates every page. Even more so than the Whouddnit aspect, it is the novel's language that makes it so uniquely noir. Nearly every line in the book is tightly wrought, a bit cruel, somewhat funny, often smart-ass: "'Who shot him?' I asked. The grey man scratched the back of his neck and said: "Someone with a gun." The bad girls are incorrigibly bad but they are also tough, smarter than nearly everybody and hold their own boldly. Dinah Brand might be the nexus for every scam in town but she's a survivor in a time when most women gave up their freedom for housework. Her lines are among the choicest in the novel:  "You're drunk, and I'm drunk, and I'm just exactly drunk enough to tell you anything you want to know. That's the kind of girl I am. If I like a person, I'll tell them anything they want to know. Just ask me. Go ahead, Ask me."

Dashiell Hammett

Dashiell Hammett could write like this because he lived this life as a detective for the famous Pinkerton Agency and had been assigned to investigate labor disputes (not many aspiring writers have such an advantage with "Write what you know" advice). Incredibly talented, he should be more famous than he is (even if you've never heard of Hammett you're probably familiar with his most famous story, The Maltese Falcon, a classic story adapted for the screen with Humphrey Bogart as Hammett's best altar ego detective, Sam Spade). On the surface, noir fiction might seem like absolute mayhem and blanket nihilism, but at its core it's a blistering narrative of the consequences when society goes horribly wrong.  The title, Red Harvest might suggest Communist bushels of wheat, but the real harvest is blood and too much of it. And this violence is begotten not from the will of common thugs, but when political and economic forces conspire into disastrous conditions. Detectives like our hero in the Continental Op might be able to clean up a rotten place like Poisonville, but it's only a small town in a big, big country. Still, it is a start...

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