Steve Schechter's Reviews > The Glass Key

The Glass Key by Dashiell Hammett
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it was amazing
Read 2 times. Last read September 13, 2019.

Okay full disclosure: The Glass Key is my favorite book. I chose it for my final review for the #SummerReadingChallenge because it was an opportunity to read it again and cruise to the finish line. It is a decision I stand behind very strongly.

The Glass Key is Dashiell Hammett’s fourth novel and it’s his last great one. It’s a masterpiece of taut narrative and brilliant characterization. The title metaphor is one of the finest ever put down in print. Originally published as a serial in Black Mask in 1930 and as a collection in 1931, it’s a book that’s influenced many and will continue to do so as long as words are read.

It’s a detective story where the main character isn’t a detective by trade. Ned Beaumont is an adviser to a politically influential mobster named Paul Madvig. Ned, who loves to gamble more than anything else, is the guy behind the guy. Think Gabriel Byrne in Miller’s Crossing, the Coen Brothers movie heavily influenced by this book.

Things start to get tricky when Paul sets his sights on a Senator’s daughter, Janet Henry. Paul strikes a deal with the Senator to throw his support behind the Senator in the upcoming election in exchange for Janet’s hand in marriage. All’s well — except for the pointless little detail involving Janet not being able to stand Paul — until the Senator’s son, Taylor Henry, shows up dead in China Street. The last person seen with Taylor when he was alive was Paul, which most definitely gums up the works for all involved.

This sets Ned Beaumont into action. Ned risks his friendship with Paul, his job, and his life in order to clear Paul’s name. He dodges the schemes of a rival gangster, a crooked DA, a rigged newspaper, Paul’s own daughter, and the Senator’s daughter to do his job. Along the way he takes a few beatings but manages to uncover the truth about Taylor Henry’s murder.

Hammett wrote with a lyrical, staccato rhythm. It’s Hemingway without the pompous self-satisfaction of an egomaniac. Just look at the opening paragraph:

“Green dice rolled across the green table, struck the rim together, and bounced back. One stopped short holding six white spots in two equal rows uppermost. The other tumbled out to the center of the table and came to rest with a single spot on top.”

That is like soft water. It’s clean and rolls right off. Hammett reads fast without being simple. He was the master of short sentence paragraphs. Some of Hammett’s best work was done in short stories. It was there that Hammett developed his swift, economical style. He was just trying to feed his young family and he ended up popularizing an entire genre, American Detective Fiction.

Now it’s best to leave the true meaning of the title unsaid. On the surface, when you open a door with a glass key it can break off and leave the door open forever. But in this book, it is what’s hidden behind the door that means everything. It’s one of the finest literary metaphors you’ll ever read.

As a side note, The Glass Key has been made into a film in 1935 and 1942. I’ve never seen the 1935 version. But I recently rewatched the 1942 version starring a miscast Alan Ladd as Ed (not Ned for some reason) Beaumont, a well-cast Brian Donlevy as Paul Madvig, and an overly sultry Veronica Lake as Janet Henry. The film is good overall. It bungles the meaning of the title and there a few other questionable decisions. But it gets a few key moments right and nails the relationship between Beaumont and Madvig. It’s definitely worth a watch. But like most film adaptations, it’s no match for the book. But to be fair, there never could be a match for this book. Can’t recommend it enough.

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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
May 19, 2015 – Shelved
September 13, 2019 – Started Reading
September 13, 2019 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-1 of 1 (1 new)

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message 1: by Raquel (new)

Raquel Thanks for the review and recommendation! It's always good to go back to trusted classic for a re-read!


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