The Continental Op comes to Personville (or “Poisonville” as the locals call it) to meet with local newspaper publisher Donald Willsson. But when Willsson turns up dead, the Op has to figure out why. This leads to a dive into the complex, intricate, and dangerous layers of criminality that control Personville. All of which the Op intends to clear away.
Red Harvest is a classic of both the crime and noir genres as well as the detective genre. The Op is as quintessential a character as Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot: cool and clever under fire, adaptable in high-stakes, fast-changing situations, and willing to use any means necessary without breaking from his moral foundation. He’s not as cynical as Jack Bauer or Dirty Harry, but he’s as willing to do whatever it takes to destroy crime at its source.
What makes Red Harvest stand out among its peers is the sheer scope of corruption and intrigue in Personville. The murder mystery that kicks the plot off could keep a lesser book going for 300 pages, but Hammett weaves it into a much wider story within the first few chapters. When the plot is actually solved, it’s practically an afterthought between the much larger plans in motion.
The cast of characters is worthy of such complex levels of double crossing and back stabbing, and the way the Op plays off each, from the bitter, emotional Old Man Elihu to the cutthroat and stoic Max “Whisper” Thaler, leaves the reader constantly involved, constantly excited, and constantly guessing how the Op will handle his next challenge. This is a story that never sits still but rides from suspense to suspense with all the audacity of the modern action movie.
It’s been said that Hammett drew inspiration from his life as a detective for his Continental Op stories. To whatever degree this is true, one thing is certain: Red Harvest is a crime novel as alive as anyone you might meet on the streets. If you want a story that will thrill and excite, you can hardly do better.