The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man) were "good, but...."*. This novel is good, period. Our protagonist is The Continental Op: a short, balding, middle-aged PI with no name. He's the only detective that appears in more than one of Hammett's novels. Mistakenly billed as "the first private eye" (that honor goes to John Daly Carroll's Three Gun Terry), The Continental Op is nevertheless set the standard for all future private detectives. Chandler's Marlowe, MacDonald's Lew Archer, and even Hammett's own Sam Spade are all influenced by the pattern set by The Continental Op.
The Op travels to Personville (called Poisonville by its inhabitants), a small mining town rife with corruption. The editor of the local newspaper, who is billed as the last honest man in Personville, is murdered while The Op waits for him in his home. We never find out what job The Op was being hired for, but he gets dragged into the long-standing struggle to hold the town together between the men who started the corruption many years ago. The editor's murder is solved very quickly, but something about Personville rubs The Op the wrong way. He ends up taking it upon himself to clean up the town personally. What follows is an interesting tale of twists and turns as The Op uses ingenious traps and well constructed lies to make the warring parties take care of each other, leaving The Op the last man standing.
Red Harvest was first published in 1929, and was Hammett's first published novel. He had previously published short stories, mostly using The Continental Op, in Black Mask magazine (where The Maltese Falcon was serialized before its publication as a novel in 1930). Chandler's prose is more literary (and more copied), but Hammett's terse, stripped-down style has influenced generations of authors to write in the mystery genre. His influence is felt even today, as a website dedicated to the 75th anniversary (Feb 14) of the publication of The Maltese Falcon shows. Author Tony Hillerman says, "If not the greatest, Dashiell Hammett is certainly the most important American mystery writer of the twentieth century, and second in history only to Edgar Allen Poe, who essentially invented the genre."
Hammett's contemporary Raymond Chandler summed it up best when he said, "Hammett was spare, hard-boiled, but he did over and over what only the best writers can ever do. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before."
Posted on the old blog 4/06/2005.
* Update (3/20/12): My "good, but" for Falcon didn't really have to do with the book itself. I was, and am, a fan of the movie starring Humphrey Bogart. At the time, I had seen the movie so many times and knew it so well that the book held nothing extra for me. It was almost like John Huston shot from the novel instead of a script. When you look at books/movies like LA Confidential or The Godfather, there is a crapload more in the book than ever made it onto the screen. So in those cases, reading the book expands and enriches the cinematic experience. With Falcon, it's essentially getting the same story via a different delivery mechanism. Don't get me wrong,, Falcon is a great book and I would dearly like to read it again. It should be considered required reading for any crime fiction fan.