DASHIELL HAMMETT – Red Harvest. The Continental Op. Alfred A. Knopf, hardcover, 1929. Originally serialized in Black Mask, November 1927 to February 1928.

   My favorite of Hammett’s works, and a classic example of the “one-damn-thing-after-another” school of hard-boiled fiction.

   The plot exists merely as a blank canvas to paint vivid scenes and characters upon, but here it is, for what it’s worth. Hammett’s nameless Op is summoned to the city of Personville (called Poisonville by the locals) at the behest of Donald Wilsson, son of the local tyrant, Elihu Wilssson, and editor of the daily paper.

   Young Donald gets himself murdered before the Op ever meets him, but old Elihu engages him to find the killer, then gives him a carte-blanche to clear out the criminal element, who seem to outnumber the ordinary folk by an unhealthy margin.

   And from there on, as I say, it’s just one damn thing after another. Fixed fights, mercenary dames, dynamite, crooked cops, bootleg hooch, gang wars, and the occasional solo murder solved just to give things a rest.

   All this would have crowded up most novels, but in Hammett’s terse, evocative prose, it flows smoothly all the way, livened up by characters who strut and fret their few lines across the page with color and conviction: tough guys with names like Reno Starkey and Whisper Thaler, backed up by sharply delineated supporting players who come and go in less than a paragraph. Hammett didn’t waste any words here, but he didn’t leave any out, either.

   This was the first of Hammett’s Black Mask serials to be published as a novel. Oddly, it is the only one never faithfully adapted to the screen, though it was cited by Akira Kurosawa as the basis for Yojimbo, which inspired A Fistful of Dollars, which inspired the prohibition-set gangster film Last Man Standing, so I guess in a way it came full circle.