Recommended: Dashiell Hammett's 'Red Harvest'

The last time I spoke with Frank Conroy, we discussed two writers we never talked about at Iowa when I was his student, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Frank said he much preferred Chandler's style, and I agreed with him, yet I also found myself defending Hammett. Hammett's most famous novel, The Maltese Falcon, might be the greatest detective story ever written, but the novel I'm recommending here is rougher, more violent, and far darker. In Red Harvest, the Continental Op, an older and swarthier precursor to Sam Spade, is dispatched to a mining town overrun with corruption and crime. For reasons that are not altogether clear, he decides to clean the place up by himself. What follows is a nihilistic bloodbath filled with spitting gats, and burning bootleg liquor, and doomed gangsters "who could take anything the world had without batting an eye, and who would play it out that way to the end."

It's pretty much a perfect piece of pulp, and the inspiration for a host of books and movies, including Akira Kurosawa's samurai classic Yojimbo, and Clint Eastwood's A Fistful of Dollars. What's most interesting is how the violence sickens everyone in the story, even our nameless hero who sets it all into motion. "I've got a hard skin over what's left of my soul," he says, before retreating into a laudanum fueled haze that ends with even more blood and death. Hammett once said of writers, "It is the beginning of the end when you discover you have style." Red Harvest was Hammett's first novel and it remains as raw a piece of America as the Black Hills or a coyote's howl.

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