The Muckraking Novelist Dashiell Hammett: A Red Literary Harvest

He was called a “Commie” and a “Red,” but no one has ever called Samuel Dashiell Hammett a muckraker, at least not until now. Still, that’s what he was, through and through. All five of his novels, which were published between 1929 and 1934, are exposés that reveal the corruption, the criminality and the hypocrisy of life in the U.S., though they’re also entertaining detective stories packed with suspense and intrigue and laced with intricate plots that connect thugs in low places with political bosses and corporate henchmen in high places. In Hammett’s world the cops mostly get in the way of the private detective, though some of them are as corrupt as the wealthy men who deceive the masses with the help of daily newspapers. Only the self-employed, underpaid investigator is above corruption, though he’s never an angel.

“Most things in San Francisco can be bought, or taken,” Sam Spade tells Brigid O’Shaughnessy, the femme fatale, in The Maltese Falcon, Hammett’s best-known work, which has been turned into several movies. John Huston’s 1941 cinematic version, with Bogart, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre, is the best. In the very first paragraph of The Falcon, Hammett’s calls Spade a “blond Satan.” For most of the novel, he’s genuinely satanic and not very lovable, unless you love hard-boiled guys with gats who go up against gunsels.

Hammet’s other fictional detectives, including “The Continental Operative” or “Op,” and Nick Charles, are not glamorous or glamorized. Indeed, when they have to be nasty they’re as nasty as anyone else. The ends justify the means in The Falcon and The Thin Man, where Nick Charles tangles with cops, criminals, spoiled brats, ex-cons, gold diggers, and “hop heads.” Charles stays in high-class hotels, drinks martinis compulsively, and gets down and dirty.

Hammett never romanticized detective work, cops or criminals, and never romanticized himself, either. He allowed Hollywood to buy him, put him to work, and pay him a lot of money, which he spent on starlets, alcohol, and the high life, which nearly ruined him. He suffered from TB, emphysema and lung cancer and died at 66 in 1961. Even when he refused to name names during the McCarthy era, and went to jail instead, he didn’t boast about himself, his books, his literary success and his Hollywood connections. He cast himself as just another loyal member of the Communist Party, U.S.A, doing what any good Communist was supposed to do: keep his mouth shut and not turn on comrades.  When Senator McCarthy asked him about royalties he may have received for books purchased by the U.S. State Department for overseas libraries, he replied, “If I were fighting Communism, I don’t think I would do it by giving people any books at all.”

San Francisco is not the only place in Hammett’s world where most things can be bought or taken. Indeed, most things can be bought or taken nearly everywhere in his fiction. What obtains in Hammett’s San Francisco also obtains in his New York, which provides the setting for The Thin Man, and also in “Poisonville,” the fictional town based on Butte, Montana where Red Harvest, his first novel, takes place.

Published as a book on February 1, 1929, when he was 35, it was serialized in four installments, from November 1927 to February 1928 in Black Mask, the pulp fiction magazine founded by H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan to support their highbrow literary magazine, The Smart Set. Lowbrow and highbrow have been linked in American literature ever since the 1840s when Poe invented the detective story and influenced Dostoevsky, Conan Doyle and dozens of imitators.

By the time that Red Harvest was published by Knopf in 1929, Hammett had already published dozens of short stories, beginning in 1923 and then all through the 1920s, the decade when he honed his skills as a writer, learned how not to waste a word, and most of all  “took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley,” as Raymond Chandler explained in his brilliant essay “The Simple Art of Murder.” Chandler added that Hammett “wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before.” Agatha Christie had turned the murder mystery into an advertisement for the British upper class. Hammett gave it back to its roots in the American subculture of crime.

Red Harvest—which celebrates its 90th anniversary this year—reads in large part as a series of short stories that are tied together by the main character who uses several aliases, including J.W. Clark, P.F. King and Henry F. Neill, an able-bodied seaman and a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Alas, he doesn’t seem to have a real name. Early in his tale, he explains to readers, “I had to be nasty,” and that he was hired by the “czar of Poisonville” to clean up the town that he owns lock, stock and barrel, including the Mining Corporation, the newspapers, the First National Bank, the mayor, the governor of the state and a U.S. Senator. He’s the power elite all in one. His son is a “lousy liberal.”

Here’s the backstory that the narrator provides: the Poisonville miners have gone on strike, the czar has refused to negotiate with them and has used every weapon at his disposal, including organized criminal syndicates, to break the back of the union. As the detective explains, “To beat the miners he had to let his hired thugs run wild. When the fight was over he couldn’t get rid of them. He couldn’t openly break with them. They had too much on him.” The Poisonville czar hires the detective, who comes from San Francisco, to take the city away from the criminals, restore law and order and impose the rule of private property.

Not surprisingly the thugs don’t appreciate the detective’s efforts. Before long, he’s in the thick of gang warfare with machine guns and bombs. “I don’t like the way Poisonville has treated me,” he complains. “It’s ripe for the harvest.” It’s a bloody harvest, indeed; a real red harvest. The detective aim to “smash things up.” He does so very nicely. He’s practically a one-man wrecking crew. The only decent person in the whole town is an IWW member named Bill Quint who believes in “the old sabotage racket, staying on the job and gumming things up from the inside.” Bill Quint quickly vanishes. In his absence, the detective divides and conquers and wreaks havoc. Red Harvest isn’t exactly an IWW novel; there’s no IWW organization in the book, though it has some of the spirit of the early IWW. One can imagine the IWW’s Big Bill Haywood, enjoying it.

Red Harvest is also a Marxist novel in the sense that it expresses Marx’s idea that crime and criminality are at the very heart of capitalist society and necessary for it to flourish. The narrator explains that there are factories and workers in Poisonville, but neither he nor Hammett are interested in industrial production and proletarian revolution. They’re fascinated by the mass production of crime, and focused on a society in which a machine gun is a “busy little death factory.” The slaughter that took place in WWI, when Hammett was a soldier in the army, informs Red Harvest.

In Theories of Surplus Value, Marx wrote that “a criminal produces crimes…criminal law…the police and criminal justice…penal codes…art, belles-lettres, novels,” and that the criminal “breaks the monotony…of bourgeois life…and gives a stimulus to the productive forces.” Hammett probably didn’t read Marx before he wrote Red Harvest, though, according to playwright Lillian Hellman, his closest friend and sometimes lover, he read all of Marx later in life. Ring Lardner, Jr., one of the Hollywood Ten, refused to name names when asked, but years after the investigating committees folded, he wrote that Hammett was “a Marxist and a professed Communist.” Yes, Lardner, Jr. outed him. Hellman never did that.

Red Harvest is pure Hammett and muckraking fiction at its very best. The bodies pile up, blood flows freely and the gangsters try to frame the detective for murder. He also drinks himself into oblivion with a moll named Dinah Brand. “I’m going blood-simple,” the detective says, and adds, “I’ve arranged a killing or two in my time, when they were necessary. But this is the first time I’ve got the fever.”

At the end of the novel, the detective gives the town, or what’s left of it, back to the czar of Poisonville. Then he “ducks” out, hops a train for another city and hides out in a hotel under an alias. Red Harvest is his truthful account of gang warfare with dynamite and machine guns, and not the official, sanitized and “harmless” report that he writes and files with the agency that employs him. The novel has much of the lingo of the street, the jail, the pool hall and the bar which Hammett heard when he worked for the Pinkerton Detective Agency and that gave him the opportunity to poke his nose wherever he wanted and act like a muckraking reporter.

After Red Harvest, Hammett wrote and published, in quick

succession, four more novels, all of them dynamite muckraking narratives: The Dain Curse, The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key and The Thin Man, which was turned into a terrible and a sentimental movie, with William Powell and Myrna Loy, that betrays the spirit of Dashiell Hammett and his integrity as a writer.

The Dain Curse unmasks a fake cult and plummets the pain of drug addiction and the addictive lure of power. The Glass Key traces the links between sleazy gamblers and corrupt politicians. Orson Welles starred in a radio adaptation that was broadcast in 1939. The Coen brothers borrowed freely from it for their 1990 film Miller’s Crossing.

The Maltese Falcon explores the existential chase for a valuable commodity that warps the people caught up by its mystique, and The Thin Man rips into a wealthy, degenerate and self-destructive American family. The Thin Man is also a kind of primer on how to be a detective. When Nick’s wife Nora suggests that he draw up a list of clues and suspects, he tells her to do it and goes to sleep. He solves the crimes through intuition and an understanding of human psychology and the way society works.

A great deal could be said about The Dain Curse, The Glass Key, The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man. Hammett enjoyed writing them as much as he enjoyed writing his first novel in which there’s a “chorus of pistols singing Bang-bang-bang.” Indeed, before he goes “blood simple” and escapes with his life in his hands, he has a “a lot of fun” while he “throws bullets around.” Nearly half a century after it was first published, Red Harvest sings, stings and swings.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.