- The Seeds of Red Harvest:
Dashiell Hammett's Poisonville
- by George
- Dashiell Hammett,
the writer given credit for creating the modern detective novel,
remains a mystery himself, but clues to solving the mystery of
his early years can be found in his connection to Butte, Montana.
Hammett wrote short stories and novels about private detectives
and they are universally acclaimed as some of the best ever written.
His novels include Red Harvest, The Maltese
Falcon, The Glass Key, The Dain Curse,
and The Thin Man.
Dashiell Hammett drew upon his experiences as a Pinkerton operative
for his stories about navigating the mean streets of America.
He worked as a Pinkerton detective from 1915 to 1922. One operative
who worked with him said that Dash, as he was known, could follow
a suspect without being seen better than anybody. One time, he
blended in so well that the man he was following got lost and
asked him for directions without even knowing that he was being
followed. Hammett claimed that he once shadowed a suspect for
six weeks through a half dozen small towns without being detected.
Hammett took pleasure in exposing inexperienced mystery writers
by revealing inconsistencies in their stories that he recognized
from his own experience as a private detective, such as pointing
out the difference between a revolver and an automatic pistol.
Hammett tended to embellish his accounts of his detective years
in later interviews. For example, Hammett confided that he was
offered $5,000 to murder Frank Little, an organizer for the Industrial
Workers of the World. Hammett said that he turned down the offer,
but on August 1, 1917, five men carried Little from his room,
dragged him behind a car, and then hanged him from a train trestle
on the edge of Butte. More than likely, though,Hammett was in
Baltimore, Maryland in 1917. He was working for Pinkerton at
the time but probably on the East Coast as a rookie operative,
still learning the trade from his mentor there, James Wright,
who would become the model for the Continental Op in his detective
fiction that would follow.
Like the claim that he was offered a fee to murder Frank Little,
other claims of his detective life are equally hard to accept.
He claimed that he had to shoot a man one night defending a powder
magazine in Butte. He described another incident when was hit
in the back of the head with a brick thrown by a striker that
left a permanent dent in his skull as an unpleasant reminder
of his work in Montana. Lillian Hellman later related a story
that Dash was hit over the head with a brick but it happened
in an alley in San Francisco. While following a suspect, Hammett
didn't realize he had a partner who slipped up behind him with
It is impossible to corroborate any of what Hammett claimed in
later interviews because he or Hellman are the source for all
of them and his reputation as a hard-boiled detective writer
depended on his self-promotion as an experienced detective. According
to his biographer Richard Layman in Shadow Man,
"In a half self-serving, half playful manner, he characteristically
amplified his stories, rewriting, revising, even inventing accounts
of his experiences."
- Hammett left
detective work to serve in the U.S. Army from June 24, 1918 to
May 29, 1919 when he was discharged with untreatable tuberculosis.
Even though he had spent his time in the service as an ambulance
driver at Camp Meade, Maryland within a few miles of his Maryland
home, he had contracted a disease that would hobble him physically
for the rest of his life.
May 1920, Hammett transferred to the Spokane, Washington office
of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency when Pinkerton was
retained by the Anaconda Copper Mining Company in Montana to
break a strike in the copper mining district of Butte and Anaconda.
He worked out of the Spokane office from late May until November
6 when he was hospitalized with a relapse of tuberculosis. In
the Cushman Institute in Tacoma, Washington where he recuperated,
he came under the care of Josephine Dolan, a young nurse from
Anaconda. They would marry the following year.
- The mystery
that remains centers on just what Hammett did see and do as a
detective. Even his biographer, Richard Layman admits that there
is no way to verify what Hammett's casework was during his time
as a Pinkerton. Most of the case files from that era were destroyed
in a fire and over the years the Pinkerton Agency has selectively
culled its own records especially when it comes to any evidence
of their work as strikebreakers. The particulars of just what
Hammett did as a detective during his assignments in the West
may remain a mystery forever. Was he a writer who drew from his
experience as a detective? Or, did he harness the vivid imagination
of a keen observer with inside information about Pinkerton cases?
The Anaconda Road massacre where 15 strikers were shot by Company
toughs had already occured on April 21st.Federal troops arrived
on the 22nd, and 500 miners returned to work on the 23rd. By
May the Company had banned all I.W.W. members from working in
the mines, posting signs that read "No member of I.W.W.
will be employed at this property."
If Hammett did spend time in Butte, it seems unlikely that he
could have arrived before June 1920 as strikers grudgingly returned
to the undergound mines without achieving any of their goals.
The following April, the Company shut down the mines citing falling
copper prices and they stayed closed until January 1922.
not clear where Hammett came to know details of Butte during
its chaotic labor troubles. He may have learned it first hand,
or from colleagues in the Spokane office who had worked in Butte.
Another possibility has come to light recently with the publication
of a memoir by Hammet's daughter, Jo, titled Dashiell Hammett:
A Daughter Remembers which provides a great deal of insight
into the personal life of a previously mysterious public figure.
Hammett's first wife Josephine grew up in nearby Anaconda and
when she turned 15 she moved to Butte to train and work at St.
James Hospital there. Hammett met her in Tacoma, Washington in
1920. It's hard to imagine that they would not have discussed
their separate experiences in Butte during those years. And she
was there, during some of the most violent eruptions of 1917,
the murder of Frank Little, the Granite Mountain Mine Disaster
and the bitter strike that followed.
Whatever the origins
of his inspiration, the novel that grew from the seeds planted
in Hammett's imagination was Red Harvest. The novel
was first printed as a serial in the magazine Black Mask,
titled "The Cleansing of Poisonville." Personville
is the name of the western mining town, twisted in the local
idiom and pronounced as Poisonville. It is obviously Butte in
its heydey as a wide open town. Local landmarks such as the M&M
Cigar Store, the Columbia Gardens, and Park Street can be seen
through the veil of fiction.
Probably as a result of the excesses of the Anaconda Company
in Montana, Hammett came to believe that the people who hired
detectives could be as bad or worse than the criminals he was
supposed to investigate--they just had more money. Red
Harvest is the story of a detective who follows his own
code of ethics in a world where all sides are corrupt. His experience
as a detective is the source of the code in his novels where
a private detective like the nameless Continental Op in Red
Harvest or Sam Spade or Ned Beaumont follow their own
set of principles of right and wrong, fairness and justice independent
of the many corrupt people on both sides of the law.
Unlike The Maltese Falcon, which was translated
into a classic film starring Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, there
has never been a successful translation of the novel inspired
by Butte to the big screen. Hammett sold the rights to the story
soon after the novel's publication in 1929. A movie loosely based
on the book titled Roadhouse Nights was released
in 1930. There is an excellent discussion (click
here or on the book cover above to read review by Allen Barra) about the irony that
prevents the movie from being made today. It's a tangled tale
that involves Akira Kurosawa, Yojimbo, Clint Eastwood
and A Fistful of Dollars, Bruce Willis and Last
Man Standing and copyright issues that linger over the
story even today. Apparently, the story has been lifted enough
times without credit to Hammett that to bring Hammett's original
novel to the screen would invite copyright lawsuits.
It is unfortunate that these issues can't be sorted out and the
movie brought to life in Butte where it was inspired 80 years
ago for a young impressionable Pinkerton man forming his ideas
about right or wrong that would sustain him throughout his life.