Grim Reapings

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Published in 1929, Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest shocked some reviewers with its frank sexuality, fierce language, and graphic violence. Set in the fictional town of Personville—“Poisonville” to its inhabitants—the novel was based on Hammett’s own experiences as a Pinkerton detective in the mining town of Butte, Montana, a city that he perceived as devoid of moral authority from within and untouched by authority from without.

The first paperback edition of Hammett’s book, from 1943.
 
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Published in 1929, Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest shocked some reviewers with its frank sexuality, fierce language, and graphic violence. Set in the fictional town of Personville—“Poisonville” to its inhabitants—the novel was based on Hammett’s own experiences as a Pinkerton detective in the mining town of Butte, Montana, a city that he perceived as devoid of moral authority from within and untouched by authority from without. A self-consciously modern Western, Red Harvest was written almost with a sense of outrage, as if Hammett was out to dispel the romantic notions of the movie Westerns and pulp crime stories of his era.

His protagonist—one is hard put to call him a hero—is a detective, the Continental Op, a modern hired gun who becomes embroiled in the corruption of a town torn between two powerful warring factions. In a cynical twist on the traditional Western, the Op, a character Hammett used in several other stories, doesn’t hire out to the good guys—there are no good guys—but plays both ends against the middle, finally igniting a carnage of near biblical proportions.

Red Harvest is the only Dashiell Hammett novel that has never been filmed. The Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man, The Glass Key, and The Dain Curse all made it onto the screen, but Red Harvest was too violent and too profane for Hollywoocontinentald. (The rights were purchased, but in a twist as bizarre as any in Hammett’s fiction, the story was rewritten into a comedy starring Jimmy Durante.) Over the years, copyright and other legal issues have kept it from being filmed, though literary detectives have seen its influence in Akira Kurosawa’s samurai epic Yojimbo, the Clint Eastwood spaghetti Western A Fistful of Dollars, the Bruce Willis Prohibition-era gangster flick Last Man Standing (directed by Walter Hill, who directed the first episode of “Deadwood”), and even the Coen brothers’ Miller’s Crossing, which appears to be an unaccredited splicing of two Hammett novels, The Glass Key and Red Harvest. (The Coen brothers are unabashed Hammett fans; their first film, Blood Simple, took its title from Red Harvest.)

Over the years filmmakers from Bernardo Bertolucci to Mel Gibson to the Irish director Neil Jordan have expressed interest in making a movie from Red Harvest, but it remains the great unfilmed American crime story. Its influence can even be felt in “Deadwood,” which is set in another mining camp in a neighboring state and, like Red Harvest, turns the traditional Western on its head.

David Milch has added a complexity to the theme that even Hammett, who was certainly not shy about giving his tales shocking and elaborate twists, never envisioned: Will Marshal Seth Bullock (played by Timothy Olyphant) continue to be a moral buffer between Deadwood’s two most powerful vice lords (played by Ian McShane and Powers Boothe) or, as he is drawn into the story’s intrigue, become the third leg in a tripod of corruption?

—A.B.