Dashiell Hammett, along with Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, are considered the three pillars of classic American hard-boiled writing. Hammett came first, however, and pretty well perfected the genre and writing style when it was still in its infancy. As much as the latter two authors leaned on him, to my mind they never surpassed him. He was the best.
I am not the first to note the curious fact that Hammett published five mysteries in five years, one of them among the greatest novels ever written, then never finished another book for the remaining 27 years of his life. No one ever really figured out why, including Lillian Hellman, his companion during those 27 years, though alcoholism, tuberculosis, and persecution by the US government (Hammett spent time in jail due to his political beliefs) are among the chief suspects. (A new collection of his short fiction, The Hunter and Other Stories, reveals that Hammett may have been hoping to shake the tough-guy image and write something completely different, but the stories failed to interest editors, hence their publication now for the first time.)
His first novel, Red Harvest (1929) has a standard-issue feel at the opening, when an unnamed private investigator arrives in Personville (aka "Poisonville") at the behest of an influential client whose life has been threatened. The client is killed before they meet, but his father hires the PI to find his son's killer. The suspects number a greedy girlfriend, a crooked chief of police, the victim's wife, and several of the town's gangsters. So far, so ordinary. But that's where things start to change, and before long you realize you're in the hands of a master of two of America's favourite themes: violence and vengeance. The PI quickly learns he can't trust anybody, including his employer, who first asks him to clean up Personville then orders him to leave town. After one-too-many assassination attempts, however, the PI is unwilling to vacate: now it's personal. "All in all it's one swell dish," is how one character sums things. And that's how the nameless PI deals it, serving up first one gangster after another in his unbending quest to restore law and order. The protagonist has strong similarities to Sam Spade, Hammett's most famous creation, but other characters from his third and best-known volume, The Maltese Falcon, also find their prototypes here, in this powerful and highly engaging story.