Favorite literature re-encountered: “Red Harvest”

by Adam Reger

I’ve fallen in love with lots of lines from lots of different books (see here and here for two recent examples). Right up there with any of them is this passage from Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 novel Red Harvest:

“Your fat chief of police tried to assassinate me last night. I don’t like that. I’m just mean enough to want to ruin him for it. Now I’m going to have my fun. I’ve got ten thousand dollars of your money to play with. I’m going to use it opening Poisonville up from Adam’s apple to ankles. I’ll see that you get my reports as regularly as possible. I hope you enjoy them.”

That’s the (unnamed) protagonist, a man from a private detective agency who’s been called to Personville (a.k.a. “Poisonville,” as in the above) on a case, talking to Elihu Willsson, a wealthy old man who pretty much runs the town. The protagonist has just solved the mystery of who killed the man who summoned him to Personville, but in so doing he’s uncovered the stink of outrageous corruption in the town. He doesn’t like it, and makes the foregoing pronouncement.

This is on page 64. Solving the murder case is nothing; it’s the protagonist’s turn, his new intention to “open[] Poisonville from Adam’s apple to ankles,” that marks the first plot point in the novel. It’s also where, as a reader, you feel the book changing. I’m re-reading the novel now, and I already know that, indeed, the action of the rest of Red Harvest is the protagonist having his fun. But even knowing what happens, I still feel the thrill of that little speech as the detective declares himself.

Credit where it’s due: I picked up Red Harvest after reading the above passage quoted in this excellent AV Club “Gateways to Geekery” feature on crime fiction, written by Christopher Bahn.