The Glass Key
First edition cover
|Published||1931 (Alfred A. Knopf)|
|Media type||Print (hardcover)|
|Preceded by||The Maltese Falcon|
|Followed by||The Thin Man|
The Glass Key is a novel by Dashiell Hammett, said to be his favorite among his works. It was first published as serial in Black Mask in 1930, then was collected in 1931 (in London; the American edition followed 3 months later), and tells the story of gambler and racketeer Ned Beaumont, whose devotion to crooked political boss Paul Madvig leads him to investigate the murder of a local senator's son as a potential gang war brews. Hammett dedicated the novel to onetime lover Nell Martin.
There have been two US film adaptations (1935 and 1942) of the novel (plus one in USSR/Estonia in 1985). A radio adaptation starring Orson Welles aired on March 10, 1939 as part of his Campbell Playhouse program. The book was also a major influence on the Coen brothers 1990 film Miller's Crossing, a film about a gambler who is a right hand man to a corrupt political boss and their involvement in a brewing gang war.
The story revolves around Ned Beaumont, a gambler and best friend of the criminal boss Paul Madvig. Ned finds the body of a Senator’s son on the street, and Madvig asks him to thwart the D.A.'s investigation, his motive being he wants to back the corrupt senator in order to marry his daughter, Janet. Ned goes to New York searching for Bernie, a bookie who owes him a great deal of money from a gambling debt, but ends up getting beaten up. Meanwhile someone sends a series of letters to people close to the crime, hinting that Madvig was the murderer. Suspicion for this falls on Madvig's daughter, Opal, who was the victim's girlfriend.
Madvig's political base begins to crumble when he refuses to spring a follower's brother from jail. The follower goes to rival mob boss Shad O'Rory, who eliminates a witness to the brother's crime. Madvig then declares war on O'Rory, who offers to bribe Beaumont to expose Madvig in the newspaper. Beaumont refuses, is knocked unconscious, and wakes captive in a dingy room where he is beaten daily – some of the toughest scenes in hard-boiled fiction.
Hospitalized after his escape, Beaumont tells Madvig and Janet that he was laying a trap for O'Rory; he then struggles out of bed to stop the newspaper from printing its expose. Beaumont confronts O'Rory, the publisher, and Madvig's daughter Opal. The publisher commits suicide, after Beaumont seduces his wife. Next Beaumont interviews Janet, discovering that she wrote the letters and that the Senator knew about the murder before Beaumont himself found the body. A new clue points to Madvig, and when confronted he confesses, but he cannot account for the victim's hat, a detail Beaumont pointedly repeats throughout the novel. This impasse and Beaumont's growing interest in Janet, Madvig's now girlfriend, cause a second rift between the men. Beaumont and Janet pair up to solve the murder. Beaumont uncovers evidence proving the senator killed his own son and turns him over to the police. Beaumont confronts Madvig with his new discovery, and the two depart, not enemies, but no longer friends.
- Ned Beaumont - gambler and amateur detective. Finds Taylor Henry's body.
- Paul Madvig - crooked political boss. Backs Senator Henry because he is in love with Janet. Best friends with Ned Beaumont.
- Senator Henry - up for reelection. Father of Taylor and Janet. Real murderer of his son, Taylor Henry.
- Janet Henry - daughter of Senator Henry. Hates Madvig and falls in love with Ned.
- Shad O'Rory - Madvig's rival. A gangster. Has Ned brutally beaten for refusing to help frame Paul. Is killed by Jeff.
- Bernie - a gambler Ned suspects of having murdered Taylor Henry. Owes Ned money.
- Jack - a private detective hired by Ned to trail Bernie
- Michael - the D.A.
- Jeff - O'Rory's bodyguard, who beats Ned and later strangles O'Rory
“[Hammett] employs a completely objective approach, merely reporting the conversations and describing the surface actions of his characters, never directly presenting their thoughts and feelings.” This leaves some ambiguity in the reasoning of Ned Beaumont’s actions, such as his suspicions about Janet Henry’s father. This makes it hard to determine the nature of Ned’s relationship with Janet. While there is controversy as to whether or not they are together at the end, the fact that there is a relationship at all is indicative of “a different kind of hero.” According to Carl Jung, the "first work of the hero is to retreat from the world scene of secondary effects to those casual zones of the psyche where the difficulties really reside, and there to clarify the difficulties, eradicate them in his own case." What is interesting about Dashiell Hammett's characters is that they do follow this first qualifications, as well as the second, which is "the man or woman who has been able to battle past his personal and historical limitations to the generally valid, normally human forms." In The Glass Key, Ned Beaumont does cross the boundaries of society. however, the third portion of the "hero" archetype does not follow with Ned Beaumont; "the hero has died as a modern man; but as eternal man-perfected, unspecific, universal man-he has been reborn. His second solemn deed and task therefore...is to return then to us, transfigured, and teach the lesson he has learned of life renewed." While Ned Beaumont does go through a "transformation" of sorts (his relationship with Janet, he does not seek to empower those he lives with. Instead, he runs away to New York this suggests that Hammett's "heroes" have an essential flaw in their magnanimity. Hammett’s detectives usually avoid relationships at any and all costs, though Ned is different. He does not possess the sort of “immunity” to any emotional tie that previous detectives have maintained, such as the Continental Op in Hammett’s Red Harvest. Because of this supposed relationship between Ned and Janet, The Glass Key takes on a more traditional storyline- that of the detective “hero” and his beautiful heroine, ending with a ride into the sunset of New York. “Neither the Op nor Sam Spade would have gone off with Janet, for as detectives they both strove to be ruled as much as possible by reason. But Beaumont is a gambler instead of a detective--a man used to taking risks. Just as he continues to bet while he is on a losing streak, he is willing to make another kind of wager on Janet--despite the great odds of the relationship ending badly. Because he is willing to accept the risks that human commitments entail, Beaumont is, if not Hammett's ideal hero, his most completely human hero.” thus, though Ned Beaumont does not fit either the popular, famous archetype of Jung, nor the weaker, less altruistic "hero" of Hammett's preferences, but an altogether different one, most closely related to neither.
A more obvious theme in The Glass Key shows itself through the characters and their respective moralities. Here are elected officials, community figures, and the like who participate in conspiracies that are more often considered common in the underworld. This novel by Dashiell Hammett is set in a more unassuming place than his previous novels, and thus more obviously open to corruption. As such, the characters are based more upon animalistic qualities than in previous novels Hammett wrote. The characters, perhaps through the objectivity of the writing style, are portrayed as cutthroat and almost feral. The reason for their apparent slippage into violence is most likely related to the early Great Depression, as the novel was published in 1931. The loss of “luck,” as described in the novel (“What good am I if my luck’s gone?” He asks. “You might as well take your punishment and get it over with”) is the deciding factor in the actions of the characters. The novel is similar in that respect to later Depressionary novels, such as The Postman Always Rings Twice.
Hammett’s distinctive and groundbreaking style helped usher in the hardboiled genre. The Glass Key, written in Hammett’s later noir years, is a prime example of his stylistic power. Raymond Chandler, a 20th-century author and critic, discussed Hammett’s sense of the modern world in The Glass Key:
The realist in murder writes of a world in which gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities, ... where no man can walk down a dark street in safety because law and order are things we talk about but refrain from practicing; ... It is not a fragrant world, but it is the world you live in, and certain writers with tough minds and a cool spirit of detachment can make very interesting and even amusing patterns out of it?
William Kennedy, also a 20th-century author and book critic, explains what is so complex about Hammett’s writing style: “Hammett's strategy is to show the process of detection as motivated by and affecting a friendship between two men. Out of these materials Hammett creates a dynamic structure of uncertain, constantly shifting human relationships.”
One of the most interesting aspects of Hammett’s writing in The Glass Key is his refusal to let the reader into the character’s minds. Perhaps Hammett felt all fiction should lack an inner monologue; in the real world people only understand actions and speech, and that is all Hammett’s characters give us. By keeping the readers in the dark of his characters true intentions, he intensifies our sense of the problematic nature of reality. That is to say, we never can trust if a character is doing what he is doing out of loyalty, or for selfish intentions.
Adaptations and legacy
Dashiell Hammett and his novel The Glass Key had a large influence on many other hardboiled writers. As Raymond Chandler explains in his oft-cited essay, "The Simple Art of Murder," Dashiell Hammett, as well as other hardboiled writers, created a style that removed the puzzle-game intrigues of typical detective novels and instead replaced it with realism: "Where murder is committed for reasons, and people talk and act as real people do." Chandler argues that it is due to these authors that this style is developed and raised from a generic form to a "new level of artistic substance."
The novel was made into a movie of the same name in 1935 directed by Frank Tuttle. It was produced by E. Lloyd Sheldon, and the screen play was written by Katryn Scola and Kubec Glasmon. It was distributed by Paramount Pictures. In 1942 a remake was released, which was directed by Heisler. It was produced by Buddy G. DeSylva, with the screenplay written by Latimer. This remake was also distributed by Paramount Pictures.
The Glass Key was also adapted as a radio show on Orson Welles’ The Campbell Playhouse, which aired in 1939; and was adapted for television as part of the Westinghouse Studio One series by screenwriter Worthington Miner and director George Zachary. The television version starred Donald Briggs, Lawrence Fletcher and Jean Carson and was originally broadcast on May 11, 1949.
The book was also the inspiration for the satirical samurai film Yojimbo produced by Kurosawa wherein a warrior for hire offers services to two rival merchants, each seeking to control a gambling operation, then goes on to pit the two gangs of killers against each other, a la the Continental Op. This in turn inspired Sergio Leone’s classic “spaghetti western” A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and its sequels. This link resulted in a type of bond between classic westerns and "hardboiled detective" films. Together with Hammett's 1929 novel Red Harvest, The Glass Key provided inspiration for the Coen Brother’s 1990 film, Miller's Crossing.
 There is general agreement that The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key are Hammett’s two finest books. With the passing years Hammett looked more and more harshly on his own fiction, but conceded that The Glass Key was “not so bad.” Its reception was even better than that of the previous novel, and so were sales, 20,000 copies having been sold eighteen months after publication. Some preferred the Falcon, others said simply that Hammett had written the three best detective stories of all time, and in the New Yorker Dorothy Parker screamed that “there is entirely too little screaming about the work of Dashiell Hammett.” Hammett felt that the finished book was his best work, nonetheless because “the clues were nicely placed... although nobody seemed to notice.” Reviewers were less sanguine. David T. Bazelon, writing for the Commentary, thought that Hammett had attempted a conventional novel, in which characters act for reasons of loyalty, passion, or power. But even on those generous grounds, he found the novel unsatisfactory: “We never know whether [the] motive in solving the murder is loyalty, job-doing or love... this ambiguity reflects, I think, Hammett’s difficulty in writing an unformularized novel-- one in which an analysis of motives is fundamental.” Other critics wrote that the novel was “Hammett’s least satisfactory,” and that the hero was “mechanical and his emotions were not there.” Robert Edenbaum, for basically the same reasons, called The Glass Key Hammett’s “least satisfactory novel... [in Hemingway] the mask is lifted every time the character is alone; he admits his misery to himself...exposes his inner life. The Hammett mask is never lifted; the Hammett character never lets you inside. Instead of the potential despair of Hemingway, Hammett gives you unimpaired control and machinelike efficiency.” Yet Louis Untermeyer declared, “Hammett has done something extraordinarily new to the murder and mystery story. He has made the reader as much interested in the relation of his individuals to each other as in the solution of the story.” Somerset Maugham saw, in Ned Beaumont, “a curious, intriguing character whom any novelist would have been proud to conceive.” And Raymond Chandler found “an effect of movement, intrigue, cross-purposes, and the gradual elucidation of character, which is all the detective story has any right to be about anyway. All the rest is spillikins in the parlor.”
- The Mercury Theatre on the Air
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- Layman, Richard. "Chapter 17." Shadow Man: The Life of Dashiell Hammett. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981. 183. Print.
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- "The Glass Key." IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 04 Dec. 2012. <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0034798/>.
- List of Westinghouse Studio One episodes#Season 1
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- A summary and brief review is available from Case Western Reserve University's Department of English.