Tuesday, 5 September 2000

Dashiell Hammett: The Glass Key (1934)

Edition: Avenel Books, 1980
Review number: 601

The Glass Key is my least favourite of Hammett's five novels. Its central character, Ned Beaumont, is a political manager, not so much a manipulator of the mass media like a modern spin doctor but a chief advisor maintaining the web of corruption and extortion that characterised much American local politics in the thirties. Clearly considerably brighter than those around him, he remains an unlikable tough guy.

The way that the murder mystery works in this novel remains rather unusual, and that is its most admirable feature. Rather than investigating to find the truth, Beaumont seeks to impose his own preconceptions on the investigation. This is of course more like the way that an average person would start to solve a mystery, but it is certainly atypical behaviour for the central character in a crime novel.

Beaumont is looking to protect the standing of his friend, Paul Madvig, the city boss. The murder victim was the brother of the woman Madvig wants to marry, from an aristocratic family which looks down on his humble origins.

Hammett did the tough, unpleasant, corrupt real world as nastily as any writer since; but in this novel none of the characters are likeable enough to have drawn me in. That is, of course, part of the realism; none of the local politicians of the type portrayed in The Glass Key would have been likely to be pleasant to know.

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