The Glass Key

Posted by Jason Venter (October 19, 2016)

"The Glass Key" is the fourth Dashiell Hammett novel, out of a total of five. I've been reading them in order, collected in an omnibus produced by the Library of America, and I've been having a good time. Here, though, I didn't find as much to like as usual.

Like "The Maltese Falcon," which immediately preceded it and was just plain terrific, "The Glass Key" abandons the first-person narrative that made his first two novels so personal. His characters never feel quite as compelling, whether as a result of that or something else entirely, which is a shame. In this case, I suspect it's because following the action and various twists is more difficult.

The gist of the story is that a fellow named Beaumont is good friends with another fellow named Paul Madvig. The two aren't brothers, but in the couple of years or so that they have known each other, they have become close enough that they call the same woman "Mom" and clearly trust one another a great deal.

Beaumont is going home from a meeting one evening, though, when he discovers a dead man lying in the street. The corpse belongs to the son of Senator Ralph Bancroft, with whom Paul works closely, and that creates all sorts of trouble not only for Paul, but for Beaumont. He needs to find a way to keep his good friend out of trouble, just as a critical election is nearing.

"The Glass Key" mixes a lot of the usual elements, including mobster types and a ton of dialogue, but it somehow seems to have been missed by Hammett's magic touch. Some of the scenes dragged, and others had tension only because the characters knew secrets that were kept from the readers until later. Jumps along the timeline weren't always readily apparent until a few paragraphs in, and there were other similar issues that one might suppose would be rather beneath the author.

The biggest issue I had with the story was its lack of focus. There's a whole trip to New York that feels like it could have been cut from the story without much impact, and the novel doesn't even feel especially long as it is. The descriptions also don't flow as smoothly, I thought, and it's difficult to find a character to like.

And yet in spite of those flaws, "The Glass Key" is still an interesting read and--at the very least--distinctly different from the three novels that immediately preceded it. Dashiell Hammett did a good job of keeping readers guessing, even when he revisited similar themes. Each setting was quite unique, and the characters have their own quirks even though they seem to have been cut from a similar cloth.

I suspect that once I read the final novel in the omnibus, I will look back on "The Glass Key" as the low point in Hammett's output, but it's still quite entertaining and well worth reading if, like me, you think you would like to perhaps read every bit of fiction the author ever had published. I've suffered through much worse while browsing the weakest stuff from other authors in the genre, and odds are good that you have, too.

Rating: 6/10

Jason Venter is a freelance blogger who spends most of his time writing about games and technology. Follow him on Twitter if you dare, at @jasonventer.

Additional posts by Jason Venter...

[Chatter] Freelance Games Blogger Needs Regular Work

Here is a list of the skills you can pay me to put to work for your outlet!

[Reviews] The Thin Man

A breezy sort of detective story that makes me wish Hammett explored these characters in additional novels.

[Reviews] The Maltese Falcon

If you're a fan of noir detective fiction but you haven't read this novel, fix that at the earliest opportunity.


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