The Glass Key by Dashiell Hammett (1931)

Ned Beaumont did not say anything. His face was expressionless. (p.153)

Narrated in the third person, this feels like a further move away from Hammett’s origins in that, yes it involves crime and murder, but it is not focused on a detective solving the crimes and leading us through the maze of misleading information to a clear understanding of events, as were his first three novels.

It’s more an exploration of the world of Ned Beaumont (‘Im a gambler and a politician’s hanger-on’ p.155), a tough fixer for gang-leader-going-straight Paul Madvig, who’s running an election campaign when the son of the Senator they’re supporting is found dead and all his enemies start blaming it on Madvig. Beaumont:

  • follows a crooked bookie who owes him money to New York, gets beaten up before framing the bookie & getting his money
  • tries to get to the bottom of the murder of Senator’s son Taylor Henry
    • finding out who’s sending anonymous letters blaming Paul
    • dealing with the newspaper editor who’s going to print a front page exposé of Paul
    • when the editor commits suicide, going to extreme lengths to get the next day’s revelations canned
  • gets kidnapped and badly beaten by the thugs of rival gangster Shad O’Rory
  • manages the spineless District Attorney’s handling of the case
  • deals with the Senator’s daughter, Janet, who Madvig loves but who hates him
  • goads the psychopath Jeff into strangling O’Rory

Style

Again there’s an odd discrepancy between the street slang of the characters and the sometimes ornate vocabulary and rather mannered style of the narrating voice.

1. Slang terms

  • buzzer = police badge (p.31)
  • licked = beaten (p.31)
  • take a Mickey Finn = leave in the lurch (p.32)
  • unkdray = too much booze, hungover (p.46)
  • drop the shuck on someone = frame them (p.49)
  • keysters = (p.83)
  • ducat = ticket (p.83)
  • smeared = closed, shut down (p.85)
  • iron = car (p.127)
  • it’s a pipe that = it’s a certainty that (p.169)
  • roscoe = gun (p.197)
  • screw = depart (p.198) cf blow

2. Mannered narrator

His walnut desk-top was empty except for a telephone and a large desk-set of green onyx whereon a nude metal figure holding aloft an airplane stood on one foot… (p.58)

Farr smote his desk again. (p.63)

Ned Beaumont’s mien had become sympathetic when he transferred his gaze to the shorter man’s china-blue eyes. (p.66) Alarm joined astonishment in her mien. (p.123) Though he was attentive there was no curiosity in his mien. (p.148) The round-faced youth to whom he said it left the outer office, returning a minute later apologetic of mien. (p.163) There was as little of weakness in her voice as in her mien. (p.202)

Silence was between them awhile then. (p.86)

Ned Beaumont looked, with brown eyes wherein hate was a dull glow that came from beneath the surface, at the card players and began to get out of bed. (p.94)

When it became manifest that he was not going to speak she said earnestly… (p.107)

She drew away from his hand and fixed him with severe penetrant eyes again. (p.119)

Her blue eyes wherein age did not show became bright and keen. (p.123)

These are deliberate choices, out-dated vocabulary, Victorian phraseology. It’s odd that a style which goes out of its way to be like this can be considered the father of the hard-boiled style when it is in fact a little ornate and mannered.

What does ‘hard-boiled’ mean?

The plot isn’t particularly violent (to be precise: Ned gets hit in New York, then imprisoned & badly beaten by Shad’s men; Taylor Henry is knocked over, fractures his skull and dies; the newspaper editor Mathews shoots himself; the drunk psychopath Jeff strangles his boss O’Rory; Opal, Paul’s sister, slashes her wrists – it’s nothing compared to the earlier bloodbaths).

It isn’t a formal detective story at all since there are no detectives involved (though the mystery of Taylor Henry’s death does come to dominate more and more).

The style doesn’t have the dazzling panache, the tough guy charisma, of Raymond Chandler.

What Falcon and this one have in common – and what ‘hard-boiled’ may mean in practice – is that they both completely and utterly exclude any insight into the minds of the characters. Everything psychological is rigorously excluded for the text. When I compare it with the hundreds of pages of Graham Greene’s novels devoted to nothing but the characters’ thoughts and memories and feelings and impressions and anxieties and fears – Hammett’s novels seem like fleshless skeletons. There isn’t a flicker of warmth or humanity about them.

Instead of any of the thoughts and feelings you associate with the novel, you get minute and detailed descriptions of the outside of the characters: of the precise movements of every part of their bodies; exactly how they roll a cigarette or open a door; exactly what every part of their body does in a fight, with lecture-hall anatomical precision; and minute descriptions of their faces, especially the changing expressions of their eyes.

Mechanical habits: Thus Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon has a way of pinching his lower lip between thumb and forefinger (a mannerism portrayed by Humphrey Bogart in the 1941 movie); in Key Ned is given the habit of brushing his moustache with a thumbnail (eg p.175, 187).

Robots

The reader is challenged to figure out what is going on in everyone’s minds from this external evidence alone. Initially this is a challenge but quite quickly I relapsed into the odd sensation that I was observing robots. They talk. They move. But they appear to have no insides at all.

Ned Beaumont’s face, after a grimace of rage at the closed door, became heavily thoughtful. Lines came into his forehead. His dark eyes grew narrow and introspective. His lips puckered up under his moustache. Presently he put a finger to his mouth and bit a nail. He breathed regularly, but with more depth than usual. (p.116)

He became thoughtful. But we are not told what he is thinking about. We are never told what he is thinking about. Nowhere in the entire novel do we learn what Ned is thinking about. Instead we are given details of his breathing patterns. This epitomises the No Depth, Only Surfaces modality which Hammett has adopted. Is it this, this deliberate rejection of the humanist tradition of the novel which developed over three centuries to explore people’s feelings and psyches with growing subtlety and insight – this rejection which makes these books ‘hard-boiled’?

Ned Beaumont’s eyes widened a little, but only for a moment. His face lost some of its colour and his breathing became irregular. There was no change in his voice. (p.119)

It could be said that Hammett is more interested in his characters’ physiology than in their thoughts. Their thoughts are concealed within the black box of his prose. All we get is unnecessarily detailed descriptions of their precise physical movements. Sam Spade attacking Joel Cairo or pulling Wilmer’s coat down over his arms to get his guns are good examples from The Maltese Falcon. Here, Janet Henry has just heard her father accused of murder.

For a moment Janet Henry was still as her father. Then a look of utter horror came into her face and she sat down slowly on the floor. She did not fall. She slowly bent her knees and sank down on the floor in a sitting position, leaning to the right, her right hand on the floor for support, her horrified face turned up to her father and Ned Beaumont. (p.211)

Not now or at any other time are we told anything about her feelings at this devastating revelation. We simply see her crumpling like a broken marionette described very precisely.

Nothingness

Again and again and again the narration emphasises that these people acting like robots have no feelings, no emotions, no investment in what they’re saying or doing. Is it this emotional coolness, this nullity of affect, which makes these novels ‘hard-boiled’? It is as if the text is hypnotised, rotates around, gravitates towards, and is continually trying to achieve this state of emptiness. Blankness. Nothingness.

He rose from the sofa and crossed to the fireplace to drop the remainder of his cigar into the fire. When he returned to his seat he crossed his long legs and leaned back at ease. ‘The other side thinks it’s good politics to make people think that,’ he said. There was nothing in his voice, his face, his manner to show that he had any personal interest in what he was talking about. (p.149)

Ned Beaumont was looking with eyes that held no particular expression at the blond man and his voice was matter-of-fact. (p.169)

Ned Beaumont nodded. His face had suddenly become empty of all expression except hard concentration on Madvig’s words. (p.171)

Jack said nothing. His face told nothing of his thoughts. (p.186)

Janet stirred, but did not rise from the floor. Her face was blank. (p.212)

Related links

Pulp cover of The Glass Key

Pulp cover of The Glass Key

Hammett’s five novels

  • Red Harvest (February 1, 1929) The unnamed operative of the Continental Detective Agency uncovers a web of corruption in Personville. There’s a lot of violence, shoot-outs on almost every page, plus the individual murders.
  • The Dain Curse (July 19, 1929) The Continental Op is dragged into three episodes involving members of the Dain family: first the French ex-con posing as Dr Leggett is murdered and his wife shot; then the daughter Gabrielle involved in murders at a weird cult; then the husband who has loved her all along is killed and, while the Op is detoxing the morphine addict, the truth of the long sorry saga is revealed.
  • The Maltese Falcon (February 14, 1930) Drastically different in feel from the previous two murder-fests and told in the third person: detective Sam Spade solves the mystery of three murders surrounding a mysterious jewel-encrusted medieval statuette, and deals with the colourful trio of crooks who are prepared to kill for it: Brigid O’Shaughnessy, Joel Cairo and Casper Gutman.
  • The Glass Key (April 24, 1931) The adventures of Ned Beaumont, fixer for reformed gangster Paul Madvig, as he copes with a rival gangster, a corrupt DA, a pliant newspaper editor, and various difficult dames in the run-up to an election Paul must win.
  • The Thin Man (January 8, 1934)
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