The Glass Key
First published in the UK 1931, Alfred K. Knopf, Inc.
This edition 2001, Orion Books
I picked this up on a shopping spree on Norwich market (Ellis Books again). The Glass Key was the only Hammett I hadn’t read. I love The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man, but I’ve never got past the first few pages of The Continental Op, so this could have gone either way.
The Glass Key follows Ned Beaumont, a fixer working for a dodgy politician called Paul Madvig. ‘Following’ is the right term – the narrative is third-person but focused exclusively on Ned Beaumont, who is referred to as Ned Beaumont throughout. The effect is that of a fly-on-the-wall documentary and it’s one of the most noticeable features of the book. You have this voyeuristic view of the central character, but no insight into his emotions or thoughts.
Paul Madvig is supporting the re-election campaign of Senator Henry, seemingly for the very unpolitical reason that he wants to marry the Senator’s daughter Janet. This worries Ned Beaumont because it is taking Madvig away from his roots – he is no longer looking after his ‘boys’ – ‘it was different in the old days before you put in with the Senator‘ – and this is making life easier for his criminal rival Shad O’Rory.
Plus, Ned Beaumont doesn’t trust the Senator:
‘Read about it in the Post – one of the few aristocrats left in American politics. And his daughter’s an aristocrat. That’s why I’m warning you to sew your shirt on when you go to see them, or you’ll come away without it, because to them you’re a lower form of animal life and none of the rules apply.’
Simultaneously, the Senator’s son Taylor Henry has been putting the moves on Madvig’s daughter Opal. At the end of the first section of the book, Ned Beaumont finds Taylor Henry dead in the street. Typically loyal, his first move is to tell Paul Madvig. Then he calls the police.
A little digging reveals that Taylor Henry owed $1200 to Bernie Despain, a bookie, and wasn’t paying up. Despain has now skipped town, coincidentally with three grand of Ned Beaumont’s winnings (Ned Beaumont is a gambler and has been on a losing streak for a while). He asks Madvig to have him sworn in as a special investigator in the DA’s office so that he can go after Despain and get his money back.
I go two months without winning a bet and that gets me down. What good am I if my luck’s gone? Then I cop, or think I do, and I’m all right again. I can take my tail out from between my legs and feel that I’m s person again and not something that’s being kicked around. The money’s important enough, but it’s not the real thing. It’s what losing and losing and losing does to me. Can you get that? It’s getting me licked.
Ned Beaumont’s motivation is never quite clear and is probably the real mystery in this book. Is he pursuing Despain for his money, or because he might have killed Taylor Henry? Is he protecting Madvig from suspicion or undermining him? What does he really feel about the aristocratic Senator Henry and his aristocratic daughter Janet? For that matter, what does he really feel about his colleague and friend Paul Madvig?
Ned Beaumont is not a typical hard-boiled protagonist. He is a fixer and not a detective. He seems to understand politics better than the politicians, but he’s an amateur when it comes to investigation. He’s not a strong man – he comes off worse in pretty every physical confrontation, but he is brave and he doesn’t give in easily.
Ned Beaumont stood up. His face was pallid and damp with sweat. He looked at his torn coat-sleeve and wrist and at the blood running down his hand. His hand was trembling.
I think many writers would have gone the whole way with Madvig and probably with Ned Beaumont and made them completely amoral political machines. But each of them has a heart and ultimately this is a story about friendship and what happens when it is blighted by suspicion.
(Actually, one doubt I have about this book is that the two have only known each other for a year. Their relationship feels more mature, and it doesn’t seem like it would have changed the story if they had more of a history.)
There is some beautiful writing. Every so often, Hammett suddenly produces a paragraph awash with colour:
Opal Madvig’s room was chiefly blue. She, in a blue and silver wrapper, was propped up on pillows in her bed when Ned Beaumont came in. She was blue-eyed as her father and grandmother, long-boned as they and firm-featured, with fair pink skin still childish in texture. Her eyes were reddened now.
Other times he turns in an incredible physical description. Just look at the dynamism in this portrait of Senator Henry – almost everything is moving.
Senator Henry put his napkin on the table and stood up. Rising, he seemed taller than he was and younger. His somewhat small head, under its thin covering of grey hair, was remarkably symmetrical. Aging muscles sagged in his patrician face, accentuating its vertical lines, but slackness had not yet reached his lips, nor was it apparent that the years had in any way touched his eyes: they were a greenish grey, deep-set, not large but brilliant, and their lids were firm.
Sometimes the narrative seems to progress in real time. Here is Ned Beaumont waiting for Shad O’Henry in Shad’s rooms:
Ned Beaumont lit a cigar. The dog turned his head and watched him.
Not looked, watched. You can feel the moments passing.
So all told, a lovely book.
Final destination: A keeper
Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Rich – Thanks for this comprehensive and well-written review. Glad to hear you liked this one. That’s what I must say I like about Hammett’s writing; it really is dynamic. And he does flesh out his characters rather well I think.
The language in his books is just awesome and timeless. I plan to read this one soon. Thanks for the review, Rich. I enjoyed reading it. PS: What are your thoughts on Raymond Chandler? So far, I’m not gaining any traction with him.
Nice review Rich. I’ve never quite got into Chandler/Hammett and so, perhaps unfairly, have decided that noir really isn’t my thing. Nice review though.
Great review, I’ve just added a few Hammett books to my wishlist as I’ve never read anything by him and he has always been at the back of my mind as someone I really must try.
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