Book Review: the Glass Key by Dashiell Hammett

The next book I read for my Readings in the Genre: Mystery Classics class for Seton Hill University’s Master of Fine Arts in Writing Popular Fiction was The Glass Key (mystery 147 pages) by Dashiell Hammett.

I have to admit that The Glass Key has been the hardest of the novels for me to get through so far. Usually, I can get through the readings in about a day or a weekend at most, but this one took me an entire week to get through.

This book really was almost fantastic. The story was interesting, I just couldn’t get very engaged in it. I never really thought that Ned was a decent guy just based on how he started the novel gambling and threatening other people. He did seem okay at first, convincing Paul to support Tim’s wife with everything they need until after the election is dealt with and Tim’s case can be resolved. He seemed smart and like he might be one of those characters who lives in the underworld but actually might have a sense of honor. I would have accepted him as the good guy protagonist except for what the last narrator did during The Murder of Roger Akroyd. Having read that so recently, I was skeptical of how much I trust the narrator of the mystery stories right now.

The point of view was very distant in this novel. I never knew what any of the characters were thinking or feeling and it frustrated me because I wasn’t positive about any of the motivations for any of the characters. Mystery is not my main genre that I read in and I’m more familiar with the close narration style used in YA. Without seeing any of Ned’s thought processes, it was difficult to understand why he would be so loyal to Paul all the way through the story. I thought they were actually brothers for a good portion of the story, but then I realized that was just a way of saying they were close.

According to Classic Crime Fiction, The Glass Key is part of the American detective stories, “born out of disillusionment with the increasing corruption of American social life and a feeling of disillusionment enhanced by the unhappy effects of Prohibition in big cities.” The Glass Key definitely demonstrated political life in America in the 1920s, with police officers paid off by politicians and those in the political circles able to do whatever they wanted. One of the weird things about this novel to me, though, was the fact that there was a massive amount of alcohol throughout the entire story. I realize the amount of alcohol was a statement against Prohibition and I also realize that clean water was not as easy to find in those times as it is now, but it really just seemed like there was a lot of alcohol involved in the story.

I think one of the things that made this story a little more time-consuming for me to read is that I couldn’t keep track of the timeline. I’m one of those readers who enjoys a chronological story and it felt a lot to me as though I had no concept of time as this story progressed. I didn’t know how long it would take Ned Beaumont to travel to all the locations he went to in order to talk to people or get his money back or whatever he was doing. This story, as a mystery, seemed to lack a sense of urgency at all to it. I had no idea when the election was supposed to happen, so I had no idea how long Beaumont has in order to actually figure out who really murdered Taylor Henry.

In The Hound of the Baskervilles, there was a clear and pressing sense of urgency. If Holmes and Watson can’t figure out the murder quickly, then someone else is likely to die. In The Murder of Roger Akroyd, the sense of urgency wasn’t really there, either, but the writing style was such that the last portion of the book went very quickly. In The Glass Key, I kept asking myself how long ago something happened and trying to figure out if anything that was mentioned in the story was actually relevant, if it was supposed to be a red herring, or if it was just an author attempting to make a publishable word count. I know that sounds kind of heartless and I’m usually a lot more supportive of books and their authors, but when I’m reading a mystery, I really want some sort of sense of urgency as to why the issue must be resolved and why it must be resolved quickly and/or soon. Without knowing when the elections were supposed to happen or the amount of time that passed as the story progressed, the sense of urgency in solving this case quickly just didn’t filter through.

This story was a fairly accurate imitation of real life, especially the life of America in the 1920s. Sometimes, people just die and it’s not pretty, and for a lot of people throughout history, violence is the only method of solving problems they can find. There was a lot of violence in this story and I’m not positive that I can remember or keep track of all the people who died or were beaten. Jeff beats up Ned and Ned winds up in the hospital. Jeff kills Shad. The story mentions several run-ins between police officers and the more criminal elements of the city where people are killed. In this sense, the story again portrayed and accurate representation of America in the 1920s.

I think one of the things that disturbed me the most about this book is how so many of the political games and plays for power are still prevalent in our political system in America today. People are still being bought and paid for and the politicians are still doing whatever it takes to get what they want. In this way, this novel is a success as far as writing popular fiction because it clearly demonstrates how you can write a novel that is true to your own time and understanding of the world around you and how it can still be understood and sympathized with generations later.

I think the dirty and chaotic aspects of this story are really well done and I did enjoy the realism presented in the fact that nothing was clean cut and the cast of characters didn’t necessarily have to be there, nor did they have to interact with other people. Just as in a real city, there would be so many people and those people would all complicate things whether they intended to or not. One of the things that I’ve noticed is that I read this book through the lens of the modern reader. This style of writing may have been rather popular or common when this story was published and it may have been awkward if readers picked up a story and didn’t have the complex, gritty realism as is demonstrated here with The Glass Key or others of Hammett’s works. So what seems like bad writing to us right now may have been very good writing back then. I don’t know. In another hundred years, maybe people will have forgone proper spelling, grammar, and punctuation completely and people will look back on our popular works from our current time and see many flaws and a good deal of bad writing.

This book had a much darker undertone than the previous two books. There was a lot to be said about the multiple deaths in this book and the way the violence and those deaths were just a run of the mill kind of day. Jeff doesn’t regret killing Shad at all. He just strangles him, then tosses the body. It takes a lot of work for Ned to be able to get Jeff held responsible, but even when the police are eminently on their way, Jeff isn’t panicked or anything because death was just a fact of life back then. I think that’s really well-brought out in this story. I think the appeal of this story in those times would have been a lot greater because the world was at war and their lives were so drastically different than our lives are today. I really took some time to think about what it must have been like to be a mystery reader back then and what kind of stories would hook me enough to motivate me to keep reading.

This is also the first of the mystery books we’ve read where the females in the story weren’t necessarily well-behaved or exceptionally proper. There were a number of named female characters in this story and each of them is very different, which is new from the standard females seen in the other mystery books we’ve read. Lee Wilshire is the exact opposite of proper while Opal and Janet participate in muddling with the investigation. There’s a lot of non-standard behavior and it’s actually rather refreshing.

There were a lot of characters introduced and I certainly found it difficult to figure out which characters I should pay attention to verses which characters are part of the story simply because real life is complicated and has a lot of “Non-Player Characters” who are part of the setting, but not part of the story. The grand truth there is that the real world has people who exist who have nothing to do with the current story in progress. So while I understand that perspective and it certainly added an element of realism to me, it also overwhelmed me with so many characters that I didn’t really pay attention to most of them. As far as the rest of character development goes, I noticed that every character was described in the same pattern, with age, height, weight, hair, then clothes. One or all of these things are described almost every time a character is introduced. Even with all this “descriptive” information, however, I still couldn’t picture these characters in my mind because they had physical descriptions but no actual characteristics. And there really were a lot of characters introduced especially early in the novel. I also wanted to see a little bit more about what the characters were feeling or thinking instead of just a running list of the visual descriptions in the world.

So while I didn’t particularly enjoy reading this book, there is a lot to discuss because of this book. I also thought that this story did a really good job of showing how the world is often more complicated than some stories would have you believe in that there are usually events that happen which are completely unrelated to the crimes committed.

Work Cited: Hammett, Dashiell. The Glass Key. New York: Random House, Inc., 1965. Print. Original Publication 1931.

About C.A. Jacobs

Just another crazy person, masquerading as a writer.
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