The Glass Key was a 1931 novel by Dashiell Hammett (best known for The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man.) The story follows Ned Beaumont, a gambler and the chief lieutenant and best friend of town’s corrupt political boss Paul Madvig. Madvig has been calling the shots in his town for many years but now is facing challenges. Madvig plans to endorse a Senator who had been previously been Independent of him but figures he can only survive with Madvig’s support. However, everything gets complicated when the Senator’s son is murdered and signs point to Madvig as the culprit.
The mystery in the story is one of the better plots from Hammett. The clues are well-placed. A fair play purist can go through the book and find everything laid out but not in a way that’s very obvious. It’s well-plot and well-paced, making for a solid reading experience.
As a protagonist, Beaumont is actually very interesting. He’s neither a policeman or a professional detective, but he thinks on his feet, is bright, and generally makes smart moves throughout the book. He is, at best, a morally gray character who works in the furtherance of a corrupt political machine. Yet, he has a couple of virtues that do make him appealing. Chief among them is his personal loyalty.
We”re told that Madvig had help Beaumont out of the gutter when he’d come to town and Beaumont has never forgotten that. He tries to help Madvig often in spite of the political bosses instinct.The Glass Key portrays Madvig as a political boss in decline. It’s not that Madvig doesn’t possess political capital, but rather that it’s dwindling. Beaumont spots mistakes and pitfalls of Madvig’s attempts to maintain his power and tries to warn him. When Madvig refuses to pay attention, Beaumont decides to clear out of town. However, he refuses to provide information to a rival political boss that could be used against Madvig even though it leads to Beaumont being beaten and hospitalized.
Beaumont decides to staon on to clear up the murder of the Senator’s son but finds Madvig as an impediment to resolving the issue. Is Madvig really behind the killing? The book really toys with us right until the last few chapters and a surprising reveal.
The book’s only weakness is that the characters are almost completely unremarkable beyond Beaumont and Madvig. There’s no Casper Gutman or Joel Cairo in this book. Just a pretty run-of-the-mill bunch of underworld characters, society people, and non-descript political figures.
Beyond that weakness, this book is a gem of a mystery and well worth reading for fans of hard boiled fiction.
Rating: 4.25 out of 5.0
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