Reading Dashiell Hammett is a lot like listening to the Beatles; you’ve heard them before even if you’ve never heard them before. Edgar Allen Poe invented detective fiction, but Hammett invented the detective that audiences since immediately associate with the genre.
A former Pinkerton, Hammett abandoned the British gentleman-detective popularized by Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, characters who are never really in any danger from the murderers they chase, and replaced him with the hardboiled detective: the womanizing, tough-as-nails urban cowboy who lives by a rigid code, even where that code requires him to commit crimes or be violent, and who is very much in danger from the people he meets in the story.
We know this character. We grew up with him, both in print and on screen. He’s so common, in fact, that it’s difficult to react to him as anything other than a trope (bordering on cliche), and it’s impossible for us to approach “The Glass Key” as it would have seemed at the time, when plain-speaking streetwise men of dubious affairs like Ned Beaumont, the protagonist of the book, would have stood in stark contrast to someone like Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey, for whom solving crimes was a way to fill an otherwise aristocratic life of leisure.
(In fact, Sayers herself described Wimsey — whose name, of course, sounds like whimsy — as a mix of Fred Astaire and Bertie Wooster. Wooster, for those who don’t know, appeared in the novels of P.D. Wodehouse, where he had a clever butler named Jeeves, which is where that trope came from.)
Ned Beaumont, on the other hand, is an enforcer for a political boss — a half gangster, half-politician named Paul Madvig. Beaumont is thrown into the action, not out of some sense of gentlemanly justice, but out of loyalty to his friend, and as a result ends up being kidnapped and beaten within inches of his life. Ned threatens, both with his fists and with a gun; he lies to those close to him; he destroys evidence; and so on. But not because he’s a simple thick-jawed criminal. Just the opposite. In his world, EVERYONE is a criminal, and the only way to do the right thing is to treat the law like any other obstacle.
The modern reader will see this as the blueprint for so much of 20th century detective fiction, right down to the “loose cannon” TV cop, popular in the 1970s and 80s, who has to secretly break the law to see justice done. As Raymond Chandler — the other don of hardboiled detective fiction — said, all that started with Hammett, and if this book doesn’t do it for you, it’s only because you’re sitting atop the tree that grew from the seed that Hammett planted.
The title of this book comes from a dream one of the characters describes to Ned, where the two of them are on the roof of a locked house surrounded by vipers, but that the key is made of glass, and it shatters. It is a wonderfully poetic metaphor for the possibility of peace and safety in a world governed by corruption and violence, as evidenced by the ending. After spending the entire book trying to help his friend, and nearly losing his life (several times) in the process, Ned solves the mystery only to…
Well, you’ll just have to read it.