Kirk's Reviews > The Glass Key

The Glass Key by Dashiell Hammett
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Jan 28, 12


As many reviewers note, Hammett claimed this book was his favorite, and it's easy to see why. Structurally it's the most cohesive of his five novels. RED HARVEST is great but feels a little serial-y, DAIN CURSE is four stories glommed together, and both MALTESE FALCON and THIN MAN have some rather gaping plot holes that you gotta asphalt over to get to the end. But GLASS KEY feels coherent and cohesive and let's just add crisp to make an alliterative hat trick. Maybe what's most interesting is the way the Ham embeds the serial cliffhangers within the larger plot---it's what makes the book feel less improvised than HARVEST. On top of this, the characters are shady and fun, in part because Ned Beaumont isn't a PI but a political fixer working a Baltimore machine boss. Read a few books on Hammett and Baltimore and you'll appreciate how he adapted a lot of real-life Democratic frame-ups and backstabs into the narrative. Some of Ned's dirty tricks will seem almost quaint in this CSI era where crimefighters get so tediously forensic they can track displaced air particles. I especially chuckled at the scene where Ned plants a hat in a rival's living room and then plays him like Play-Do. I also like how the book never gets too specific about ideology. We never really see what bossman Paul Madvig's agenda is, other than money and power. There are some faults: Hammett's women come in two varieties, either doe-eyed bambinos or hardened vixens. The broad here, Janet Henry, is a wet noodle and makes you long for the snappy patter of Effie Perrine. Still, I find Chandler's women more interesting---they're not so breathy and whiny as Hammett's. (Though they're better in his stories). Plus the whole significance of the title is a red herring. Hammett came up with the glass key because his editor at Black Mask was pushing him for a title to publicize his forthcoming serial and then he had to work it into the actual plot. And it feels worked in, trust me. Still, that hasn't stopped critics from getting all symbolical. I especially like when folks go Freudian, as when a guy writes Ned represents "a phallic aggression perpetually destroyed by the invasiveness of its masterful gestures"---because, you know, you stick a key in a hole and sometimes it gets stuck. Well, I also thought the significance of the lambs' silence was pretty patchy, but you can't call a book "The More Buxom, the More Homicidal." Or maybe you can.
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