Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Hammett spent his professionally formative years as a “newsboy and stevedore (a dock worker) before joining the Pinkerton Detective Agency” and thus was the forebear of lawyers writing legal thrillers, to give one parallel. His industriousness “paid off handsomely for him even as the financial fortunes of the nation were crumbling” (quote by editors Layman and Rivett, The Return of the Thin Man).
Hammett’s work, even when considering its entertainment value, wasn’t about pure escapism. And, since his protagonists—as well as their deadly rivals—are decidedly amoral, everyone involved in the plot must deal with conflicts that actually beset dimensional human beings as opposed to the play-acting of rote character types. This is evident in that so much of the friendship—the personal and professional dynamic—between ward heeler Paul Madvig and gambler Ned Beaumont is driven by mutual interest and loyalty. Then the shift occurs, after which the spoilers of money and sexual attraction take priority as driving factors. Dashiell Hammett wrote this book in 1931, but his characters and their predicament might have been ripped from today’s scandal sheets’ headlines.
The ‘crime novel’ point of departure in The Glass Key is the murder of socialite Taylor Henry and Madvig’s subsequent framing for Henry’s death. Had Madvig not been guilty of overreach in his romantic aspirations and was, generally speaking, a man with nothing to hide—this is a dude who needs a ‘fixer,’ after all—would he have been so exposed to suspicion and so 'frame-able'?
To reduce the above to fewer words, human venality and covetousness are ever-present. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Everyone (and only more so when power struggles are involved) lives somewhere along the spectrum of guilt and innocence. Where the resolution of The Maltese Falcon highlighted detective Sam Spade’s rough code of honor, and his manipulation of the players in service of closing the case, the Beaumont & Madvig bond only implodes in betrayal. There’s no comfortable resolution.
According to novelist Wallace Stroby, The Glass Key wasn’t just about “colorful criminals.” It was
something that respected the form of the detective novel, but was deeply rooted in recognizable human behavior and situations. This was about men and women, friendship and loyalty, power and corruption.