I’m relatively new to the mystery/detective/crime novel genre, but Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key struck me as different from other examples in a number of ways, most particularly in the way we find out so little about the main character, Ned Beaumont. I just finished Benjamin Black’s The Silver Swan for a point of comparison, and although Black doesn’t give us reams of information about his hero’s thoughts and feelings, we do get a little insight into how his mind works. But Ned Beaumont remains a mystery; perhaps he’s the central mystery of the book rather than the murder he’s trying to get to the bottom of.
I don’t say he’s investigating this murder because that might be overstating the case, as Beaumont is not a real detective. He has a man working for him who is a real detective, but he himself is a political henchman, working for a corrupt man who backs a corrupt senator. When the senator’s son is murdered, he wants to find out who did it, not to bring the murderer to justice but to clear his friend from suspicion.
So what do we know about Ned Beaumont? (The narrator always calls him by his full name, never just “Ned” or “Beaumont.”) He appeared on the scene (some unnamed city, possibly Baltimore) only a couple years ago from no one knows where. He has a history in New York City, but no one knows what the connection is. He appears to be a handsome man, although we only know this because of the way other characters react to him; the narrator never describes his looks. People like him, although it’s not entirely clear why. He’s got a powerful attachment to Paul Madvig, the man suspected of committing the murder, but we’re not entirely sure what the basis of this attachment is. He seems like a drifter, a man who will float into a city, stay a while, get in some trouble or get bored, and float away somewhere else. Women fall in love with him, but there’s no indication he has any feelings for them at all.
The world Ned Beaumont lives in is thoroughly corrupt, and there’s no hint that things could possibly be otherwise. No one works to clean things up. Instead, we’re given a world full of violence and betrayal. The novel contains a shocking scene where Ned Beaumont ventures into the lair of a competing political operative believing he can trick this man, but instead finds himself brutally beaten up. He tries to escape again and again and each time he is beaten up once again, but he keeps trying and trying until he comes to embody brute determination itself. Even the man chiefly responsible for these beatings comes to admire his tenacity. It’s as though the novel is saying there is nothing to do in a world like this but to keep fighting until you can fight no more.
This description doesn’t sound like the sort of book I’m generally attracted to, and yet I did enjoy it. At least, I enjoyed it once I figured out what was going on. The first 50 pages or so were confusing, with lots of new characters and lots of intrigue. Since the narrator gives so few explanations of what is going on, the reader must do a lot of work to piece the plot together. It’s not always immediately clear which side Ned Beaumont is on, for example, or what he’s setting out to do. But the world Hammett creates is so chillingly well-drawn, so shockingly consistent in its corruption, so ruthless and heartless, that you can’t help but admire it, even as it horrifies you.
I can’t say I’ll be picking up another Hammett novel soon (although if my book club were to choose another one, I would happily read it), but I’m pleased to have gotten a taste of his work and to have a glimpse into the world of hard-boiled crime fiction.