Friday, April 18, 2014

Forgotten Books: THE GLASS KEY by Dashiell Hammett

The first time I read this novel - sometime in the late '70s, I think - I wasn't sure what to make of it. It was nowhere near as much fun as Red Harvest or The Thin Man, and not as straightforward as The Maltese Falcon. I probably liked it even less than The Dain Curse, which I found disappointing even then.

But unlike The Dain CurseThe Glass Key is a book that gets better with each reading. Whether my appreciation grows due to increased familiarity or to a change in my own perspective is hard to say, but I suspect it's a little of both.

The four heroes of Hammett's novels can be seen to represent four phases of his own life - or four aspects of his personality. The Continental Op is the young Hammett, as he grows from a dispassionate observer to a jaded realist. Sam Spade is the world-weary Hammett, sleeping with his partner's wife and doing his duty more by rote than from conviction. In Ned Beaumont, the tarnished hero of The Glass Key, we see a darker side, a Hammett for whom familiarity breeds contempt, and who expects and accepts contempt from his familiars. This character cycle culminates, of course, in Nick Charles, a man living on his laurels and viewing the world through whisky-colored glasses.

Of the four, Ned Beaumont is the most complicated, the most reclusive and the most unpredictable. And maybe that's why the book just keeps getting better and better, because each time I read it I see deeper into his - or Hammett's - or my own - character. Beaumont, a gambler and chief assistant to a corrupt political boss, is an antihero, and only slightly more admirable than his adversaries.

On the surface, The Glass Key is a murder mystery, with appropriate clues, twists and suspects, and delivers a satisfying and unexpected solution. But the more important human story is about friendship, loyalty and love, and how those three factors are sometimes incompatible.

The title comes from a dream in which Janet Henry (the female lead) and Ned Beaumont come across a house in the woods. They're starving, and the house is full of food, but the floor is crawling with snakes. Finding a key, they plan to unlock the door, hide until the snakes leave, then return and lock the door. But the key is made of glass. It breaks in the lock, they're unable to close the door and the snakes get them. The dream is symbolic of their hunt for the truth. Once they find it, it slithers out and cannot be contained`.

It's a complex story, which has proven too complex for both the 1935 film version with George Raft, Edward Arnold and Claire Dodd, and 1942 version with Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake and Brian Donlevy. Both films failed - in different ways - to tell the whole story, and the book would be a great candidate for a cable network ten-hour novel for television.

Thinly disguised as four novelettes, The Glass Key appeared as a four-part serial beginning in the March 1930 issue of Black Mask, and was published in hardcover in April 1931.

Come on back next Tuesday, when I pick nits with Mr. Ladd and Mrs. Lake.


Ron Scheer said...

I just read my first Hammett novel, RED HARVEST, to review at my blog. Your overview of the subsequent novels puts that one in a welcome context. Thanks. Makes me think of him now as the alcoholic writer with snakes in his head.

Evan Lewis said...

Great thumbnail description of him, Ron.

BVLawson said...

Evan, I'm hosting Friday's Forgotten Books today for Patti Abbott, but unfortunately Typepad (which hosts my blog) had a denial of service attack and is down. They are working to fix it ASAP, so please so stay tuned. My apologies - I'll put up the links when things are back to normal + they'll be up all weekend (and beyond). If necessary, Todd Mason has offered to stand in. I'll let you know one way or the other.

Evan Lewis said...

Thanks BV!

George said...

I first read THE GLASS KEY in one of my graduate classes at SUNY at Buffalo. The professor thought THE GLASS KEY was Hammett's best book.

Stephen Mertz said...

Evan: one of the more insightful appraisals of Hammert's novels I've ever read. Never thought of it that way. Thanks! I agree with your assessment. It's impossible not to love Red Harvest and The Maltese Falcon. It's pretty hard not to loathe The Dain Curse. But The Glass Key and The Thin Man? Those are the ones that still hold mysteries beyond whodunnit...

Unknown said...

"THE GLASS KEY" is one of my favourite novel. I like the professor character who admired me. A one-time detective and a master of deft understatement, Dashiell Hammett virtually invented the hard-boiled crime novel.
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