I saw “There Will Be Blood” in the theater when it came out, and when the lights came up I hated it. Over the next few days, certain scenes or lines would come back to me and I would think, Oh, that’s pretty good. The movie kept rising to the front of my mind, and after a week I thought it was great. The same thing happened to me with Hammett’s classic hard-boiled mystery, The Glass Key. I didn’t enjoy it much until the last few pages, then I thought it was impressive. After I’ve let it rest a few days, it’s even better.
The Glass Key is generally recognized as one of Hammett’s best three books, the other two probably being Red Harvest and The Maltese Falcon. (Maybe The Thin Man.) The story is from the early 1930s and centers on Ned Beaumont, a guy who isn’t particularly good at many things. He’s very different than Red Harvest‘s Continental Op in that he’s not a great detective. He’s different than Thin Man’s Nick Charles in that not only is he a private citizen, but he was never a cop. Beaumont isn’t even necessarily on the right side of things. He’s more or less a political fixer with a gambling problem (the problem being he’s bad at gambling).
When Beaumont’s friend Paul is thrown into the mix as a suspect in the murder of a senator’s son, Beaumont goes on this Depression-era odyssey taking him through the criminal underworld, speakeasies, and American royalty.
What was most interesting to me in the book was how confused I was. It took some time to understand all of the names, characters, places, and motivations. At first I thought the writing was poor, but looking back I think Ned Beaumont is confused. He’s not a detective, and he doesn’t know what’s going on or what he wants. He’s just…existing in the dangerous world and waiting out his bad luck.
While I still prefer Raymond Chandler’s quippy hard-boiled style to Hammett’s, I’ve got respect the guy Chandler obviously respected so much.