Poisonville

In 1917, a Pinkerton detective named Dashiell Hammett was offered $5000 to murder IWW union organizer Frank Little in Butte, Montana. Hammett turned down the job but Little was kidnapped, tortured, and murdered shortly afterward. A note pinned to his underwear read “Others Take Notice”. Hammett continued to work as a Pinkerton operative but his experience as a strike-breaker caused him to become a Communist. The tension of working both sides of the street runs through Hammett’s best work, particularly Red Harvest, his first novel.

Red Harvest is set in Poisonville, a thinly disguised version of Butte, “an ugly city of forty thousand”. The protagonist is an unnamed detective who arrives in town to find his client murdered. The detective starts asking around. His first informant is the local IWW boss. “…he considered it his duty to get the low-down on me, and not let himself be pumped about radical affairs while he was doing it. That was all right with me.”

Poisonville is run by criminal factions originally brought into town as strike-breakers by the mine owner, Elihu Willson, the man who owns Poisonville “heart, soul, skin, and guts”. Willson’s son is the murdered client, an idealist who wanteed to clean up Poisonville. “A lousy liberal”, says the union organizer.

The detective decides to clean up Poisonville himself. The method he uses is to set the various criminal factions against one another. The result is all-out war and a mounting pile of corpses as people turn “blood simple”.

The novel ends with most of the bad guys dead (with the notable exception of Elihu Willson) and the town under martial law. In real life, Butte itself came under martial law in 1920 and federal troops were called in, not for the first time, to break a strike. Miners were killed and the IWW crushed. The United States government was very clear as to which side it was on in the war between labor and capital. 

The murder of Frank Little and the plight of Butte’s miners, who were dying in wholesale lots, radicalized Hammett but he stayed a detective and remained working for the most notorious strike-breaking outfit in America. This, says James Ellroy, is the core of Hammett’s art: 

“He stayed because he loved the work and figured he could chart a moral course through it. He was right and wrong. That disjuncture is the great theme of his work. It explains why Hammett’s vision is more complex than that of his near-contemporary Raymond Chandler. Chandler wrote the man he wanted to be – gallant and with a lively satirist’s wit. Hammett wrote the man he feared he might be – tenuous and sceptical in all human dealings, corruptible and addicted to violent intrigue.”

Officially, only one movie has been made from Red Harvest, the execrable Roadhouse Nights starring Jimmy Durante. Unofficially, A Fistful of Dollars, Last Man Standing, and Kurosawa’s Yojimbo may have drawn on Hammett’s work but the book’s movie rights are lost in a legal tangle and Hammett gets no credit on any of these films.

Red Harvest

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