Elihu Willsson runs a mining town. The thugs he brought into town to stop the miners from striking have since matured into their own gambling, loan sharking, and bootlegging rackets in the 1920s. The racketeers, including corrupt public officials, appear to have gotten out of hand when Willson’s son is killed after publishing newspaper articles about the corruption. Red Harvest is about the detective at the center of the story who undertakes to destroy the corruption by pitting the rival gangs against each other.
Dinah Brand, a whore and addict, has enough dirt on each of the different factions to keep the detective interested in her. The best parts of Red Harvest are the scenes of the detective and Dinah sitting in her kitchen trading exquisite insults over generous servings of gin. The crackling dialogue and careful drip of intelligence from Dinah to the detective are the bait to seduce readers into an ugly, violent, convoluted mob world.
The complicated plot is challenging to follow (especially in audiobook format). Noonan, the police chief, favors certain crooks. Noonan and the powerful men in town pin most crimes on Max “Whisper” Thayler, a gambler who makes it easy for them since he commits so many crimes anyway. Distinct adventures including a fixed boxing match, a bank robbery, and a police raid illustrate the extent of corruption and the major players involved.
Like most corruption investigations, there is rarely a smoking gun. There are a series of personalities and questionable activities that the detective has to unpeel like an onion one layer at a time. Although he is a detective, this book is not a mystery. We know that dark forces are at work originating from Willson himself.
Unfortunately, Hammett’s tale is all too relevant today. For example, elements of Pakistan’s spy agency determined in the 1990s that supporting the burgeoning Taliban gave Pakistan strategic depth and better control of Afghanistan. Their “solution” became worse than the problem.
A “red harvest”—a bloodbath of rivals—isn’t the gentlest method of cleaning up, but Hammett showed it can be exhilarating, tragic, and effective.