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University at Buffalo Libraries

George Kelley Paperback & Pulp Fiction Collection

Red Harvest

cover image By: Hammett, Dashiell (male)
Publisher: Pocket Books, Inc. (241)
Place of Publication: New York, NY
Catalog #: Kelley Box 265: PS3515 .A4347 R4 1945
Contributor: M.A. Moran


Era: 1920s Author as on Cover: Dashiell Hammett Geographic Locale: Personville, California (fictional town near San Francisco) Date of Publication: 1945  |  Original Date: 1929 Setting: urban; small mining/smelting town: "an ugly city of forty thousand people set in an ugly notch between two ugly mountains." Motives: greed, jealousy, power, blackmail, bribery, murder

Plot Summary

An unnamed private investigator is summoned by a newspaper editor to Personville, a small town that is being run by criminal elements in league with the editor's father. Before they can talk, the editor is killed. The detective manages to turn all the various gangs' leaders against each other, resulting in them killing each other off and leaving Personville under martial law, "developing into a sweet-smelling and thornless bed of roses."

Major Characters

Detective (no name given) adult male, 40s, 190 lbs., medium build, not in great physical shape, detective employed by the Continental Detective Agency of San Francisco

Elihu Willsson adult male, 70s, owns the Personville Mining Corporation, city bank and newspapers

Max Thaler "Whisper," adult male, thin, dark, has something wrong with his throat, can only speak in a whisper, gambler

Dinah Brand adult female, greedy, prostitute, looks for other ways (not necessarily legal) to get money

Dan Rolff adult male, has tuberculosis, physically weak

Police Chief Noonan adult male, beefy, smile pasted on

Pete the Finn adult male, bootlegger

Lew Yard adult male, owns a loan shop


guns (machine guns and pistols); knife, ice pick; homemade fire bombs

Level of Violence

violence is seen throughout. There are open gun fights between gangs, several men are killed from ambush, a fighter who does not throw a fight he was supposed to is knifed before he leaves the ring. The detective beats up the tubercular man and a couple of others. Elihu Willsson, though not actively involved in violent acts, gives orders to others to carry it out. There are at least 17 murders of characters we meet in the story.


very little overt sexuality. Dinah exchanges sex for money with some of the characters. She makes efforts to engage the detective, but he shows no interest. In fact, the detective seems to have no sexual or emotional feelings at all. George Willsson was killed by a man jealous over his relationship with Dinah. We learn about an earlier murder also caused by jealousy.

Gender Roles

very traditionals views, although Dinah and Willsson's widow are depicted as tough women. Willsson's 19-year old secretary is a stereotypical secretary. A sister of the man who shot Willsson is seen only briefly and is depicted as fearful to the point of being mad. Although Dinah hangs out with the men, she is not seen as having the power they have, although physically she delivers "a man-size whallop."


minor role; foreigners are referred to as "dagos" in one instance.

Alcohol/Drug Abuse

much use of alcohol (bootleg) and cigarettes. At one point the detective mixes alcohol and laudanum. Whenever the detective relaxes, he drinks; he drinks with Dinah each time he sees her. Typical is this passage: "I put the doped gin down my throat. Presently I felt more comfortable. Time went by as we drank and talked in a world that was rosy, cheerful, and full of fellowship and peace on earth."

Law Enforcement

the police chief is one of the villains and his police force is full of villains or men of low intelligence. At one point, another of the villains offers his gang as "emergency" police. The detective finally encourages the town to call in the National Guard to finish the clean-up.

Added Features

there is much dry humor in the novel. The detective's comments are often intellectually beyond the people he talks to. A great deal of gangster jargon or slang is used, and is an important part of Hammett's style. As for social issues, there are references to events before the novel begins where men went on strike and the little good it did them, and the town of Personville is described as decaying, poor, and ugly where the residents have little chance for advancement.

Subject Headings

California/ Corruption (In Politics)/ Gangs/ Detectives, Private/ Murder/ Police/ Continental Op

Psychological Elements

the detective creates feelings of paranoia, suspicion, and distrust among the villains to turn them against one another. At one point the detective muses: "Play with murder enough and it gets you one of two ways. It makes you sick or you get to like it...I could have gone to him (Elihu Willsson)....He'd have come over to my side, have given me the support I needed to swing the play legally. I could have done that. But it's easier to have them killed off, easier and surer, and, now that I'm feeling this way, more satisfying....Poisonville is right. It's poisoned me." Substance abuse is prevalent, and overall there is a strong "noir" element to the story.