Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 409
The Glass Key is a crime novel by Dashiell Hammett, published by Knopf in 1931 (immediately following the publication of the successful The Maltese Falcon). The novel's central crime is the murder of one Taylor Henry, who is found dead in China Street nearby the Log Cabin Club—a gambling establishment where a group of gamblers and mob boss Paul Madvig do business. Taylor Henry is the son of a senator to whom the powerful Madvig gives his support in the interest of marrying his daughter, Janet.
Madvig is friends with the primary protagonist, Ned Beaumont, a gambler and small-time criminal. It is Beaumont who finds Taylor Henry's body in the street. After he finds the body, he approaches Madvig before going to the police. Madvig gives him permission to do so. The discovery of the murder coincides with Ned having won a lot of money on a horse race; however, when he goes to collect the money, the bookie, Bernie Despain, is missing. Keen on getting his money, Beaumont follows Despain and plants Taylor's hat, threatening to incriminate him and thus extorting his money.
It is suggested that Madvig and Beaumont are unsavory characters for the way they treat a stammering fellow gambler, Walter Ivans, to whom Madvig owes money. This Walter Ivans later goes to a rival mob boss, Shad O'Rory, who kills a witness to Ivans's brother's crime, thus setting in motion a heightened antagonism between O'Rory and Madvig. O'Rory tortures Beaumont, leading the latter to a hospital. In the hospital, his discussions with Madvig's daughter, Opal (who herself had been romantically, but secretly, involved with the senator's murdered son), as well as with Madvig's love interest, Janet, lead him to believe that Madvig is innocent, despite Opal's insistence that he is guilty.
Madvig confesses that he had a fight with Taylor Henry on the evening of the murder, and that he killed Taylor with the latter's own cane. Beaumont's further investigations lead him to discover that the senator himself intervened to finish his son off, angered by his own son's audacity to fight with Madvig, who backed the senator for re-election. Beaumont calls the police, and Madvig is exonerated, but the two are no longer friends.
Janet (the senator's daughter and Madvig's former love interest) plans to begin living with Beaumont in New York. The title is taken from a dream that Janet had in which she and Beaumont enter a house using a glass key.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 920
Ned Beaumont reports to his friend, Paul Madvig, the political boss of a town in the New York City area, that he has found the dead body of Taylor Henry, the son of Senator Henry, Madvig’s candidate for reelection. When Madvig fails to show much interest, Ned tells his story to the police. The next day, he goes to Bernie Despain to collect $3,250 that he had won betting on a horse race. He finds that Bernie has vanished, leaving behind IOUs made out by Taylor Henry to the worth of $1,200. Ned asks to be appointed special investigator in the district attorney’s office so that he can work on the Taylor Henry case. What he really wants to do is to find Bernie and get his money.
His first step is to get the help of Madvig’s daughter, Opal, who had been meeting Taylor secretly. Ned did not find a hat on Taylor the night of the murder. Opal gave him one from the room she and Taylor had rented. Then Ned goes to a speakeasy in New York that Bernie frequented. Bernie comes in accompanied by a burly bodyguard who, when Ned demands his money, strikes Ned a terrific blow. With the help of Jack Rumsen, a private detective, Ned trails Bernie from the hotel where he is staying to a brownstone house on Forty-ninth Street. There he tells Bernie that he planted Taylor’s hat behind a sofa cushion in Bernie’s hotel room and will leave it there for the police to find if Bernie does not pay him what he owes him. Bernie pays.
Back in town, Ned goes to see Farr, the district attorney, who shows him an envelope enclosing paper on which are typed three questions that implicate Madvig in Taylor’s murder. Meanwhile, Madvig has decided to have the police close down several speakeasies belonging to gangster and ward boss Shad O’Rory. O’Rory has reopened the Dog House, and when Ned goes there for information, O’Rory has him tortured for several days. Ned finally escapes and is taken to a hospital.
There he has many callers, including Madvig and Taylor’s sister, Janet Henry. Opal Madvig goes to tell Ned she is sure her father killed Taylor. Ned assures her that he does not believe Madvig committed the murder. Partly recovered, he leaves the hospital against orders.
Shortly afterward, Ned and Madvig dine with Senator Henry and his daughter Janet. Ned makes Janet admit that she secretly hates Madvig, who is in love with her. Ned goes to see Madvig and tells him that even his henchmen are beginning to betray him because they think he committed the murder. Madvig admits that Taylor followed him out of the Henry house that night, that they quarreled, and that he killed Taylor with a brown, knobby cane that Taylor had been carrying. Madvig claims he then carried the cane away under his coat and burned it. When Ned later asks Janet to look for the cane, she tells him it is with others in the hall of their home. She also tells him of a dream in which she and Ned find a house with a banquet spread inside; they unlock the door and let out a great many snakes before they can go in to enjoy the food.
Ned goes to Farr’s office and signs an affidavit account of Madvig’s confession. Then he goes to a bar where he finds Jeff, O’Rory’s bodyguard. In a private room upstairs, he accuses Jeff of being involved in a killing planned by O’Rory. O’Rory walks in on them, and in the ensuing quarrel, Jeff strangles O’Rory. Ned has a waiter call the police to the scene.
Ned goes to the Madvig home, where Madvig’s mother says that her son is nowhere to be found and that Opal has unsuccessfully attempted to commit suicide. The next morning, Ned goes to Senator Henry’s house and tells the senator that Madvig has confessed. It is all Janet and Ned can do to keep the senator from rushing out to kill Madvig. The senator asks Janet to leave him alone with Ned. Ned tells him that Janet hates Madvig. The senator insists he is not going to permit the murderer of his son to go unpunished. Then Ned accuses Senator Henry of killing Taylor, of wanting to kill Madvig so that he will not testify against him, and of caring more for his own reelection than for the life of his son. The senator confesses that he interfered in a street quarrel between Taylor and Madvig and asked the political boss to leave him with his son. Madvig did so after giving him the cane that Madvig had taken away from Taylor. The senator, angry with his son for the quarrel he had forced on Madvig, angrily struck Taylor with the cane and killed him. He then carried home the cane. After hearing the old man’s confession, Ned refuses to leave him alone because he fears he will kill himself before the police arrive.
The next day, Janet begs Ned to let her go with him to New York. She says the key to the house in her dream was of glass and shattered just as they opened the door because they had to force the lock. When Madvig comes in, he learns that he has lost Janet and that she is going away with Ned.