The Glass Key (1931) features Ned Beaumont, who is tall, lean, mustachioed, tubercular, and a gambler – like his creator. He is not a detective, but a political fixer for construction magnate Paul Madvig, probably in Baltimore. The toughest of Hammett’s heroes, he is the ten-minute egg of the genre. This quality springs partly from his lack of “luck,” a Depression-era belief that the novel probes, and partly from his defense of his minimal idealism from political corruption.
When Beaumont finds the body of Senator Henry’s son, Madvig asks him to thwart the D.A.’s investigation sure to follow. Beaumont wants to “sink” the corrupt senator, but Madvig backs him and wants to marry his daughter, Janet. Beaumont, needing to reverse his luck, goes to New York City to collect a gambling debt, but gets 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, who was the victim’s girlfriend. Beaumont, on his return, first stops inquiry into this matter.
Madvig’s political base begins to fragment when he refuses to spring a follower’s brother from jail. The follower goes to mob boss Shad O’Rory, who eliminates a witness to the brother’s crime. Madvig then declares war on O’Rory, who offers Beaumont $10,000 to expose his boss in the Observer. Beaumont refuses, is sapped, 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 a contrite Madvig and Janet that he was laying a trap for O’Rory; then he struggles out of bed to stop the newspaper from printing its expose. Beaumont confronts O’Rory, the publisher, and Madvig’s daughter Opal at a cottage. 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 chases throughout the novel. This impasse and Beaumont’s growing interest in Janet, Madvig’s girlfriend, cause a second rift between the men. Then Beaumont and Janet pair up to solve the murder. After Beaumont eliminates a threat from Jeff – a tough who strangles O’Rory – Janet supplies a detail that allows Beaumont to solve part of the mystery. He confronts the senator with the evidence that he killed his son. Sen. Henry wants to commit suicide, but Beaumont refuses him the option and turns him over to the police. After informing a resigned Madvig, Beaumont and Janet, in something like love, depart for New York.
Hammett considered The Glass Key his best book, saying that “the clews were nicely placed there, although nobody seemed to see them” and Ross Macdonald later ranked it highly as well. 1 Scholars also rank it as Hammett’s best, pointing to the plot – a hard-boiled version of a love triangle – and to the further refinement of the third-person objective style: characters develop through their actions, as the author reveals nothing of their pasts, what they look like, and no action which does not relate directly to the story. Ned Beaumont is a new kind of hard-boiled hero: morally ambiguous, of limited effectiveness, neither crack-shot nor pugilist nor deductive whiz. The times have reduced him to cynicism about the political process and the minimal idealism of loyalty and respect for sacrifice. The strictly objective style makes it difficult for readers to fathom Beaumont’s motivations. He seems so hard-boiled as to have no interior.
The Glass Key thematizes the loss of luck, like later Depression novels such as The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?(1935). Madvig “picked me up out of the gutter,” Beaumont says, but already he is gambling and losing again. In this Hobbesian universe, survival can be influenced by reason and ability, but it is mostly the result of luck: “What good am I if my luck’s gone?” he asks. You “might as well take your punishment and get it over with.” 2 Economic hard times have reduced men to essentials; they make “low growling noises” in their chests and seem “hawk-nosed” or “a predatory animal of forty or so” (15, 42). They get what is theirs by taking, as Beaumont shows when he collects a winning bet by threatening to frame a bookie for murder: “Ned Beaumont leaving the train that had brought him back from New York was a clear-eyed erect tall man… In color and line his face hale. His stride was long and elastic” (63).
- Ross Macdonald in Tom Nolan, Ross Macdonald, 139. 2 Dashiell Hammett, The Glass Key (New York: Knopf, 1931), 30, 6.