The Glass Key was Dashiell Hammett’s favorite among his novels and may well be, in the words of critic-novelist Julian Symons, “the peak of Hammett’s achievement, which is to say, the peak of the crime writer’s art in the twentieth century.”
Although Ned Beaumont has much in common with Hammett’s other “hard-boiled” heroes, Sam Spade and Continental Op, he is not only a professional detective hired to solve a crime but also a man involuntarily thrust into the center of a violent and puzzling situation. The fate of his employer and best friend, Paul Madvig—and ultimately his own—depends on his ability to solve the murder of Taylor Henry. Beaumont’s search for the murderer becomes, moreover, not only a problem in detection but also an exploration of the social mores and political forces operative in the America of 1931. As Ned pursues his quest, he comes to understand his own relationship to that social and political system.
Hammett’s picture of big-city politics has little to do with electoral niceties. Favors are bought and sold. Survival and power go to the fittest, that is, to those most willing and able to manipulate the power factions as they vie to maintain and expand their own self-interests. Madvig is no more honest than his rival Shad O’Rory, only a bit more adroit and likable. Holding on to power is a matter of keeping a delicate balance between contending factions; the slightest mistake can topple...
(The entire section is 576 words.)