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 anyone from the pinnacle. Those not at the center of the struggle, from District Attorney Farr down to the bartender at the speakeasy where O’Rory is murdered, are loyal only to themselves and switch sides at the slightest indication that power relationships are changing. Thus, to everyone except his sister Janet, the murder of Taylor Henry represents only a dangerous variable in the struggle for political dominance. The most “respectable” member of the establishment, old Senator Henry, turns out to be the most corrupt. He kills his own son in a fit of temper and is willing to kill again to keep the truth concealed.
Ned accepts and even participates in this system of institutionalized corruption. His loyalty to Madvig, Janet, and the “job” he has to do, however, suggests another morality, one based on personal relationships rather than on adherence to particular institutions or abstract principles. Although Ned fights with Madvig, leaves him at one point, and finally goes off with his girl, he maintains a dogged loyalty to his boss and friend throughout the book, even in the face of nearly fatal tortures and beatings. If the system is corrupt, Hammett seems to be saying, it is still possible for a man to retain his moral integrity by holding fast to his own sense of self, his personal code, and those commitments, to self and others, that are the product of that code.
The book ends on an optimistic note, with Ned and Janet about to leave together. Madvig accepts the new arrangement with equanimity and promises to use his expertise and power to do a “housecleaning.” This final optimism is unconvincing, and the image of the American Dream that remains in the mind of the reader is Janet’s dream, which gives the book its title: a delicious banquet apparently free for the taking, but guarded by hidden snakes that swarm over the unwary who dare to unlock the door with a glass key.