Dashiell Hammett: The Glass Key (1931) and Heisler’s The Glass Key (1942)

Ned Beaumont is a tall, thin, moustache-wearing, TB-ridden, drinking, gambling, hanger-on to the political boss of a corrupt Eastern city. Nevertheless, like every Hammett hero (and like Hammett himself), he has an unbreakable, if idiosyncratic moral code. Ned’s boss wants to better himself with a thoroughbred senator’s daughter; but does he want it badly enough to commit murder? If he’s innocent, who wants him in the frame? Beaumont must find out.

I have read everything Raymond Chandler has written. He used to be one my favourite authors. This might be the reason why I neglected Hammett for so long. Maybe I thought he would be too similar and that this would influence my reading.

The Glass Key was my introduction to Dashiell Hammett and although it did remind me a bit of Chandler, they are still quite different. Hammett is at the same time sparser and coarser.

At the heart of The Glass Key lies the question “Who has killed Taylor Henry?”. Taylor Henry is the son of the influential politician Ralph Henry. In an attempt to appear cleaner than he is, the corrupt politician Paul Madvig tries to associate himself with Henry. And he is in love with Henry’s daughter Janet. When Taylor is found dead, rumors start to circulate that he might have been killed by Paul. None of these people are really main characters, the central figure and exemplary tough-guy, is Ned Beaumont. He is a sort of assistant to Paul Madvig and tries, like a PI, to investigate the murder. He visits bars and clubs and people. Gets beaten up and is held captive. Women literally throw themselves at him. This all leaves him quite unfazed. No matter how much you beat that guy up, how often you threaten him, how many times you flatter him or try to seduce him, you will not get much of a reaction but a very short reply. This is as tough as tough-guys go.

The interest, at least for me, did not lie in the solving of the murder. I couldn’t care less. The appeal of this book, is the character of Ned Beaumont, this monosyllabic guy who doesn’t even flinch when he is beaten to a pulp. The other appeal is the world and the atmosphere this novel depicts.

The world of The Glass Key is a world of corruption, prohibition, easy women, hard men, bars and secret joints, bribery and violence.

And of course one has to mention the dialogue. You couldn’t find any more sparse and caustic dialogue in any novel.

Ned Beaumont advanced into the room where Lee and the Kid were.

The Kid asked: “How’s the belly?”

Ned Beaumont did not say anything.

Bernie Despain exclaimed: “Jesus! For a guy that says he came up here to talk you’ve done less of it than anybody I’ve ever heard of.”

“I want to talk to you,” Ned Beaumont said. “Do we have to have all these people around?”

“I do,” Despain replied. “You don’t. You can get away from them just by walking out and going about your own business.”

“I’ve got business here. “

After having finished the book I realized that I had the movie. It is part of a collection of Film noir movies that I had ordered before Christmas. I immediately watched it and liked it a lot.

The story is told differently. More chronological and Janet Henry’s (Veronica Lake) role is much more important. A few names have been changed. There is a club owner who is Irish in the book. He is Italian in the movie which was probably more in line with the depiction of wise guys as they populated the film noir. What I truly liked about the movie is Veronica Lake. Since I have seen L.A. Confidential (one of my favourite movies) in which Kim Basinger is compared to Veronica Lake I always wanted to see the real one. I think she is really special.

Don’t ask me whether I prefer the novel or the movie. I enjoyed reading and watching at the almost same time. It was as if the characters had stepped out of the pages at the end of the book and come alive.

I am really pleased I found the trailer which is not usual for every old movie.

18 thoughts on “Dashiell Hammett: The Glass Key (1931) and Heisler’s The Glass Key (1942)

  1. Veronica shines in Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels, a really great film about Hollywood and America in the early 40’s. I wonder if her naturalness on screen was due to her acting or was because she didn’t have the burden of years of film history as Basinger might have been under?

    • I really wanted to watch another movie with her so I’m glad for the tip. I was wondering if she did a lot of acting and I think she probably doesn’t. She is incredibly present, really stunning.

  2. I’ve only read The Maltese Falcon and that was years ago. I do like the style of these hardboiled mysteries and must read something by Chandler and more by Hammett–where should I start? I was on a mystery binge at the end of last year but I’ve not had much chance this year and this puts me in the mood to read something!

    • Read any Chandler but keep the best for last (The Long Goodbye). I think it would make sense to read him in chronological order. I like him much better than Hammett, although this was fun.

      • I’ve got The Big Sleep, which is his first, so I will start there. I was going to dig him out of my book bin (I keep most of my mysteries in plastic bins), but I just didn’t get to it last night–now I wish I had so I could read him on my break. Tonight!–I am very much in the mood for something a little different than what I’ve got going at the moment (am enjoying the books I’m reading but a little variety is good, too).

        • I hope you will like The Big Sleep. I found Chandler to be surprisingly funny. Hammett is much drier.
          I know what you mean about those “book cravings”. I would like to read different sytles and genres in parallel but try to hold myself back as it would keep me from finishing them. At the moment I am in the mood to read something in the vein of China Miéville.Or more fairytale-like fantasy.

  3. Hi and thank you for visiting my blog! This is an interesting review and makes me want to dip my toe into unknown waters, i.e. hardboiled detective fiction. I don’t mind watching the black and white television portrayals but I have yet to read one. Thanks for the review 🙂

    • Thanks and you are welcome. Start with Chandler first, he is by far more accessible. At least I thought so. Many of the movies are great but reading the novels is very different.

  4. I’ve started to read Chandler last year and I loved The Big Sleep. I intended to read them in chronological order, you just confirmed it’s the right thing to do.
    I’ve read the translation by Vian and it was great. I have another one at home (“Little Sister”, translated as “Fais pas ta rosière!” Given the translation of the title, I’m afraid the translation of the book will be full of ancient argot words)

    All this to say I haven’t read Hammet yet, but I was thinking about it. Thanks for reminding me of this. If the quote you chose is representative of his style, I can read it in English.

    • I purely used past tense because I haven’t read him in a long while (a very long while). I read all of his novels in one go and have not re-read them. The last I finished over ten years ago. That’s why I feel tempted to use past tense… Chandler has become almost sacred in my memory and I am afraid to touch him again and find him less than perfect. You could say I had a Chandler epiphany and am now looking back on it… I sound crazy… In any case what I really like is Marlowe… I don’t think that has changed much.

  5. I always love doing things like this, read the book and then immediately watched the movie. We can compare it.
    I need to encourange myself to watch black and white movie one of this days. The only black and white I have seen is Charlie Chaplin.
    From your review, I know I will like the book, it sounds like a good mystery. I’ll read any mystery I can get my hand on.

    • I liked the movie but it did feel like less of a mystery. I like black and white movies, the faces look much more expressive. But I wouldn’t suggest you watch this one first. There are better ones if you like to watch one. Rather try one of Hitchcock.

  6. Pingback: Dashiell Hammett: The Thin Man (1934) | Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

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