From The Nook of RMJ: How To Clean Up Poisonville On The Potomac


Live long enough and you’ll be sent to one of the true garden spots of the universe on behalf of your employer. You will truly get to visit some town that yea, verily needeth an enema. This happens in fiction as well. For Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Operative; Personville (AKA Poisonville) is that business trip straight into hell. The novel Red Harvest describes just exactly how one man makes makes the devil wish he would leave. The Continental Operative is a private detective hired by one of the very few honest citizens of Personville, Donald Willsson, to investigate the racket that has taken over civic life there. He is a nasty, determined, ugly fire-plug of a man who decides against what’s left of his better angels to give Poisonville the civic intestinal cleansing it so righteously deserves.

Set in the Prohibition Era American West, Poisonville is a corrupt mining town beset by a gang of five criminals who operate various mobs for their own benefit. They supposedly work at the behest of a corrupt old mining millionaire, Donald’s father; Elihu Willsson, who brought these individuals in to break a strike in the recent past. They have actually taken over Poisonville and operate it as their fiefdom. The Continental Op is brought in to try and dig up enough dirt to put them away or run them off. Within hours of the Continental Op arriving, his original employer is shot and killed. He can either go home back to his boss in San Francisco or figure out what happened to his client. In the process of figuring out what happened to his client he decides to unravel the entire corrupt skein that is civic life in Poisonville. It is from this that we can perhaps learn about a bigger and more corrupt problem the American Public faces – Washington, DC.

The protagonist begins with few leads and little information. He is thus not plugged into who runs who. So he decides to stir up the cockroach nest to see who goes scurrying. Or as The Op puts it: “Plans are alright sometimes, and sometimes just stirring things up is all right – if you’re tough enough to survive, and keep your eyes open so you’ll see what you want when it floats to the top.” From this we learn that the act of opposing corruption in and of itself is often a positive benefit.

The Continental Op is a master at determining how the shady deals that hold Poisonville’s racket together work. He uses this knowledge to divide and conquer. Chapter 19, ironically entitled “The Peace Conference,” shows this to perfection, as the Continental Operative sits down with five criminals and has them all ready to kill one another as he sets the book’s fiery conclusion into action. In today’s Washington, DC, nobody divides and conquers Conservatives better than [mc_name name=’Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’S000148′ ]. To understand that this is his number one strategy, is to understand his source of power and his threat to what we seek to accomplish. Reading Chapter 19 reminded me of Schumer at work.

Another lesson we can learn from Hammett’s adventure story is just how good politicians go bad. “This damned burg’s getting me. If I don’t get away soon I’ll be going blood-simple like the natives.” And that’s just it. DC, and all glorious corruption it entails grows on people and warps them. It turns great American war heroes into [mc_name name=’Sen. John McCain (R-AZ)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’M000303′ ]. It turns trust-fund babies into Lincoln Chafee. It brings out the true essence of anyone named Kennedy. It takes an extra-special human being to go to DC and not wind up getting VDs from The Whore of Babylon. Your favorite politicians frustrate you and maybe even break your heart as they go “blood-simple like the natives.”

The novel also offers a lot of brilliant literary art as well as political wisdom. The fore-shadowing of the icepick tells you exactly where it will end up and only leaves wondering pinned through who? The allegorical dope dream scene is also brilliant. The ending was a bit to concise, but then again, what does a private eye say when the job’s over? Hammett does an excellent job of setting up a murder mystery and tracking the protagonist as he just gets angrier and more determined to fix all the bad people in Poisonville. It’s a heck of a ride. And it’s journey we can learn from. Pick up a copy of Red harvest. It will give us all some advice on how to go about cleaning up Poisonville on the Potomac.

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