Wednesday 24 November 2010


In 1917 Dashiell Hammett, then employed as a Pinkerton Detective was hired by the Anaconda Copper Company in Montana to break a strike. First-hand immersion in the violence, intimidation and murder directed at the strikers and unions was a radicalising experience for Hammett that, decades later, would result in his appearance in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee to answer for his Communist affiliations. Writing detective fiction for Black Mask, Hammett drew on these experiences and recreated the Montana city of Butte as Personville (pronounced Poisonville), a cesspit of venality where civil society had ceased to exist leaving organised crime in charge with the assistance of a corrupt police force and judiciary.

These bleak postcard images seem to reflect Hammett’s vision of a small city with all the vices of a much larger one. The stark office blocks have a meanness and lack of grace consistent with a place where brute force had a habit of prevailing over the rule of law. The blurred and anonymous figures appear weighed down by the despotic power of their criminal overlords. Hammett’s short story published with the title Poisonville soon expanded into a full-length novel that appeared in 1929 under the title of Red Harvest. The world still waits for the definitive Red Harvest movie. For over a decade Bernardo Bertolucci incubated a Red Harvest project, a screenplay was written but it all came to naught in the late 1980s and there it rests.

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