The Op Gets a Gig
Like any good old detective novel, Red Harvest opens with a mysterious murder. The Continental Op is hired by Donald Willsson to uncover the corruption in Personville. But Donald is murdered before we even get a chance to meet him, and the Op has to solve the case on his own. It is important that the Op is a stranger to the city of Personville, and is left to his own devices as he tries to figure out who holds all the power in Personville.
An Uphill Battle
The Op learns that Donald's father, Elihu, is the most powerful man in the city. Elihu's corruption is linked to the fact that there are (Pete, Whisper, Noonan, and Reno), none of whom want the Op to dig into the history of Personville. Poor Op. No one in town wants him to succeed. They just wish he would go away and stop snooping around. So the odds of solving the murder are not in the Op's favor.
Enter Dinah Brand
She's the vixen who seems to be involved with nearly every male character in the novel. Dinah has access to a whole lot of dope on the big shots running Personville, but the question is whether the Op is willing to pay for the information.
To be fair here, the entire novel is pretty much one big complicated mess of intrigue and double-crosses and unexpected plot twists. But to keep things simple, Dinah Brand's character presents one of the most major complications in the novel because we're never quite sure what her motives are and whether or not we can trust her.
The Op figures out who murdered Donald, but we're only halfway through the novel, so what gives? What else could possible happen? Well, like we said with the "Complication" stage, it's nearly impossible to point to just one "Climax" moment.
There are several huge climactic scenes, and one of them is the moment when the Op figures out the murderer's identity. It's interesting that Hammett doesn't end the Red Harvest with the Op merely solving Willsson's death. Instead, Hammett shows how the Op has bigger fish to fry: the Op doesn't only want to find Donald's killer, he wants to purify the entire city of its mobsters.
Stirring the Poison
The Op starts trying to stir things up in Personville. He slowly sets the mobsters against each other, one by one, until no one trusts anybody anymore. So the "Suspense" stage is drawn out for a pretty long time as the Op tries to get the thugs to gang up on each other. And as the tension rises, more deaths start to accumulate until bodies seem to be dropping like flies.
The Op has finally succeeded in turning everyone into their own enemies. But just as things are winding to a head, the Op finds himself at the center of a possible murder investigation: did he kill Dinah in his sleep? Whatever the case, we see that the Op doesn't have things as under control as he would like. He's playing puppet master trying to get everyone to set against each other, but suddenly the tables turn: he's no longer the hunter, he's the hunted.
The Real Skinny
The Op tracks down the real killer of Dinah, and he's off the hook for the murder. By now, the thugs have now either killed themselves off or been sent off to jail. By novel's end, Personville appears to be "purified" of its corrupt individuals. But we're left asking how long this state of purity will last? Will Personville eventually fall into the hands of another set of power-hungry mobsters?