I have always been a fan of Dashiell Hammett, but I have only now come up with the perfect way to praise him. He is the antidote for Philo Vance (see previous post.) Where The Benson Murder Case demonstrated the mystery genre in all its silly, frivolous, dismissible absurdity, The Glass Key shows that crime writers can transcend whatever limitations some would seek to impose on their genre.
Ned Beaumont is the trusted advisor of a political boss in a corrupt city. The mayor, the police chief and the District Attorney all fall into line when Ned shows up at their doors. Things begin to get out of hand when Ned finds a senator’s son dead in the street, an apparent murder victim. Ned’s boss, Paul Madvig, has been campaigning hard for the senator in order to endear himself to the senator’s daughter, despite the fact that his own daughter has taken up with the senator’s son.
Suspicion for the murder surrounds Paul, especially when the police he controls seem to be doing little to solve the case. Ned’s efforts to find out what is really going on become complicated when his political rivals use some very rough tactics to keep him from interfering.
Hammett is a master at creating and sustaining an atmosphere. His prose is so economical and yet lively. He creates memorable characters simply through sparse description of their features, actions, and of course their dialogue. Ned encounters crooked bookies, foul-mouthed women, and scheming politicians as he tries to keep his boss out of jail.
The Glass Key was an inspiration for the Coen brothers film, Miller’s Crossing, and though the plots are not overtly similar there is in the film the same mood that Hammett creates, of a place with little resembling hope, where power rests with those daring enough to grab it and cagey enough to maintain it, and the rest of the world is just trying to stay out of their way. Friendship, love and family are depicted as impermanent and fleeting, and though Ned gets his man the novel’s ending is anything but happy.
The Glass Key is not just a great crime novel but a great novel by a great novelist. There’s nothing frivolous about it.