By December 22, 2008 0 Comments Read More →



If you want to try a book discussion on a title that will be relevant to today’s political situation, including any juicy scandals that might be occurring in your home town (or state), how about trying a book that was published in 1931:  The Glass Key by Dashiell Hammett. 

The book’s main protagonist is Ned Beaumont, a gambler and a problem solver for Paul Madvig.  

Madvig is the power-behind-the-throne in an unnamed city that most scholars believe is based on Baltimore, the city of Hammett’s youth.  In this city, an election is about to occur and Madvig’s people are doing what they have to do in order to ensure that his party is re-elected.  However, since Madvig appears to be losing his perspective because of his love for Senator Ralph Henry’s daughter Janet, his political power is beginning to slip.  Is Madvig willing to elect a Senator just to marry his daughter?  One of Madvig’s former henchmen, Shad O’Rory, is beginning to back other horses and some people are getting caught in the crossfire between these two men with ambitions. 

As the novel opens, Beaumont is trying to put out one of the fires set by Madvig’s seeming inaction on a concern of one of his boys.  Frustrated when his boss Madvig tries to warn him off a bad gambling streak, Beaumont verbalizes one of the major themes of the book when he declares, “I can stand anything I’ve got to stand.”

This code is probably familiar to longtime readers of the private eye, created in this same period by Hammett, Chandler and a host of others.  Loyalty to the cause is a major component of all of those stories, often bought with some sense of commitment due to the exchange of dollars between a businessman and his often unfaithful client.  What makes the expression of the code in this book so interesting is that it is spouted by a man who is a criminal. 

Beaumont is going to need to be a man who can take anything because by chapter four he is kneeling over the dead body of Taylor Henry, the son of the Senator, who he has found lying near a club owned by Madvig.  It is known that Taylor both opposed the relationship his sister had with Madvig but also that Madvig has warned Taylor away from his own daughter Opal. 

From this point on, Beaumont tries his best to manipulate all the players so everything comes out right for his side.  The question is, which side is he on?  At the end, when he dispenses justice to the one who deserves it, he gives that person no out when he declares, “You’ll take what’s coming to you.”

If you have ever asked yourself how Tony Soprano got to be a popular culture hero, you might find the answer in the pages of The Glass Key.  Besides placing a criminal in the role of detective, Hammett also continues his terse, hard-boiled style of writing, utilizing powerful vernacular with its cold unfamiliarity. 

This novel should easily work in any book discussion.  It can also be combined with a discussion of the wonderful 1942 film starring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. 




About the Author:

Gary Niebuhr is the author of Make Mine a Mystery (2003), Caught up in Crime (2009), and other readers' guides to mystery and detective fiction. He was a Booklist contributor from 2008-2014.

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