When I decided to review the classic hardboiled, noir crime fiction stories, I knew I had to start with Hammett. The the question arose, where to start? I knew I wanted to start with a novel, not a short story. Not that the short stories weren’t worthy of a review, indeed, I’ll cover a lot of them, but I wanted to do a novel. At first I figured I’d write about Red Harvest which is often considered his master piece.
Time magazine included Red Harvest in its TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005. And Nobel Prize-winning French author André Gide called the book “a remarkable achievement, the last word in atrocity, cynicism, and horror.” But, in the end I decided that I’d start with Hammett’s own favorite, The Glass Key.
The Glass Key is ultimately the story of a man’s devotion to a friend. It is the story of gambler and racketeer Ned Beaumont, whose devotion to crooked political boss Paul Madvig leads him to investigate the murder of a local senator’s son. Ruffling some feathers during his investigation and setting up his own alibi – Ned is at first a suspect – he stirs up a potential gang war. While conducting his investigation, he also never misses an opportunity for political maneuvering, dirty tricks and throwing a wrench into the oppositions own political/criminal machine all for a friend he seemingly doesn’t care that much about or cares for him.
On the surface, the book is a “traditional” whodunit with its linear plot, subtle hints, red herrings, false leads, and disclosure of the murderer in the final chapter. It’s his only novel with enough clues to allow readers to figure out who did it–although the identity of the killer will still surprise most readers. Yet, it is classic hardboiled fiction. As the reader turns the pages, they’ll notice a seeming lack of emotion, at least on the surface, of one character for another. Even when one character shows love or friendship, it feels as if there must be an ulterior motive. It fits the classic “noir” standard where all of the characters are flawed, and seem morally scarred and maybe, just maybe beyond redemption. Even the hero, Ned, if you can call him that, very casually-if elaborately, frames a man for murder and potentially sends him to his execution all because the guy cheated him on a bet. The language is spare, frugal, hard-boiled, but he does it over and over again as only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes here that seem never to have been written before and seldom since. It’s debated whether Hammett or Ernest Hemingway first used this sparse, realistic and almost cold-hearted way of writing, but one thing remains clear. Hammett took a cheap, shoddy and utterly lost kind of writing, something meant only for dime novels and made of it something that intellectuals crow about. He took hardboiled and made it literature and set a standard that writers are still trying to achieve. Hammett’s mastery of the American language, his adherence to reality, and that he (as Raymond Chandler put it) “gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse.” It is a world in which gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities … it is “not a fragrant world”, but it is the world we live in. While most of his fiction deals with the underworld and its corruption and squalidness, this work shows most effectively the seedy alliances among businessmen, political bosses, elected officials, law enforcement, media figures, and organized crime…and let’s not forget, beautiful women.
The Dirty Lowdown