The Politics of Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest

Article excerpt

Although Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest is often read as a Marxist novel, this essay argues that the novel's politics are much more ambiguous, reflecting Hammett's position at the time as between his earlier employment as a Pinkerton detective and his later sympathy with the Communist Party.

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Dashiell Hammett's novels transformed detective fiction into literature. Before Hammett, mystery stories involved the reader in solving a crime, observing clues and deducing "whodunit." Hammett's fiction is less about mystery, and more about crime and the detective himself. Originally serialized in Black Mask magazine in the 1920s, his stories emphasize the work of a "hard-boiled" detective, as he uses his wits, and occasionally his brawn, to solve a crime. Clues and mysteries matter less than the effect and atmosphere of the action and setting.

By removing the emphasis from solving the crime and placing it on the social environment of the crime, Hammett creates the possibility for crime fiction to be social commentary. This essay examines the politics of Hammett's first published novel, Red Harvest, and argues that, despite Hammett's later membership in the Communist Party, this book should not be seen as "proletarian fiction." Furthermore, while some critics have read the novel as an anti-fascist work, this essay argues that Red Harvest is much more complicated. Ultimately, although Hammett's novels can be read politically, their politics are ambiguous, reflecting Hammett's own contradictory evolution (which was not completed at the time he wrote Red Harvest) from Pinkerton private detective to Communist. While it is possible to read political significance into Hammett's work, there is not one obvious reading, and, in fact, it is possible to read it in several contradictory ways.

Hammett lived a politically contradictory life. From 1915 to 1922, he was an agent of the Pinkerton Detective Agency. From the late 1930s until his death in 1961, he supported the Communist Party. During the McCarthy period, he fell victim to anti-Communist hysteria and was jailed for several months for refusing to cooperate with anti-Communist investigations. Hammett bore a large burden for his political sympathies: besides being jailed, he was also fined $140,000 for back taxes, and FBI head J. Edgar Hoover unsuccessfully opposed his burial in Arlington National Cemetery (see Brower 27-29; Hamlin). Christopher Metress notes, "Hammett's association with the Communist Party hurt his critical reputation in the academy" (67). Hammett wrote his most famous works, including Red Harvest, The Dain Curse, The Maltese Falcon, and The Thin Man in the space of time between these two opposite careers. While many former radicals had become anti-Communist neo-conservatives by the 1960s, Hammett is one of the few to have gone from being an agent of the premier anti-labour organization in the United States to being a supporter of socialism. (1)

After the American Civil War, when the United States rapidly industrialized, class struggle between workers and capitalists was common. Often, employers hired private armies to battle strikers, leaving many workers dead. The Pinkerton Detective Agency was one leading supplier of these mercenaries. Although they were involved in other detective activities, the Pinkertons are best known for their bloody anti-union repression. There is probably no famous labour battle in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in which the Pinkertons were not involved, employing violence and deceit against the efforts of organized labour to improve workers' conditions. For example, during the 1892 Homestead Steel Strike in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, some three hundred armed Pinkerton strike breakers fought (and lost) a pitched battle with strikers for more than twelve hours. Three Pinkertons and seven strikers died (Jeffreys-Jones 51-73; Lukas).

One case with particular relevance for Hammett and Red Harvest is that of Frank Little, an Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) organizer in Butte, Montana. …