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"Going Blood-Simple Like the Natives": Contagious Urban Spaces and Modern Power in Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest

From: MFS Modern Fiction Studies
Volume 51, Number 3, Fall 2005
pp. 485-512 | 10.1353/mfs.2005.0061

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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 51.3 (2005) 485-512

Contagious Urban Spaces and Modern Power in Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest

Thomas Heise

In the great city the poor, the vicious, and the delinquent, crushed together in an unhealthful and contagious intimacy, breed in and in soul and body, so that it has often occurred to me that those long genealogies of the Jukes and the tribes of Ishmael would not show such a persistent and distressing uniformity of vice, crime, and poverty unless they were peculiarly fit for the environment in which they are condemned to exist.
—Robert Park, Ernest Burgess, and Roderick McKenzie,
The City
"ARE YOUR FINGER PRINTS ON FILE? How J. Edgar Hoover's F.B.I. Can Help You Protect Yourself and Your Family"
—Headline from the cover of Feds magazine, Sept. 1937

Dashiell Hammett's 1929 novel, Red Harvest, ends with an appeal to the forces of federal law, the professional and bureaucratic "white-collar soldiers" (134) of national law enforcement that historically in the 1920s and 1930s took over much of the terrain once patrolled by the private detective. The ending surprises because it apparently signifies that Hammett's hero, the anonymous Continental Op, has failed in the job he was hired to perform, namely, to rid the working-class city of Personville (called Poisonville by its residents)—"an ugly city of forty thousand people, set in an ugly notch between ugly mountains that had been all dirtied up by mining"—of the criminal elements of its organized, ethnic underworld (3). In one of his final acts in the service of his client, the Op informs him that the dire situation in the city necessitates the intervention of an authority greater than that which the Op alone can provide:

You're going to tell the governor that your city police have got out of hand, what with bootleggers sworn in as officers, and so on. You're going to ask him for help—the national guard would be best. I don't know how various ruckuses around town have come out, but I do know that the big boys—the ones you were afraid of—are dead. The ones that had too much on you for you to stand up to them. There are plenty of busy young men working like hell right now, trying to get into the dead men's shoes. The more, the better. They'll make it easier for the white-collar soldiers to take hold while everything is disorganized. . . . Then you'll have your city back, all nice and clean and ready to go to the dogs again.
(134)

Originally summoned to Personville by Donald Willsson, the editor of the local Herald, a civic reformer, and "a lousy liberal" who functions as the novel's spokesperson for the bourgeois values of fairness and transparency in government, the Op quickly finds himself working instead for Donald's corrupt father, Elihu (21). Before the novel begins, Donald's efforts to expose the roots of civic corruption lead him directly to his father—a nineteenth-century industrial magnate determined to hold on to power in the ruthlessly competitive world of twentieth-century capitalism—and lead indirectly to his (Donald's) murder on the day the Op arrives to meet him. Instead of returning to his San Francisco office, the Op remains in town, commissioned now by Elihu, purportedly to clean the city of the gangs of bootleggers and gamblers that once were—like the mining company, the bank, the press, and the majority of elected officials—firmly under his control. As the I.W.W. union leader Bill Quint recounts it, these criminals initially were hired by Elihu from the ranks of "gunmen, strike-breakers, national guardsmen and even parts of the regular army" to violently beat down a union action at his mine in 1921, but stayed on after the strike, eventually taking "the city for their spoils" (7). The Op's pledge to Elihu to wipe out the city's Irish and Italian thugs—and in the process, to stamp out the illegal working-class pleasures of drinking and gambling—comprises the bulk of Hammett...



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