Hammett, Dashiel. Marcus, Steven, ed. Hammett: Complete Novels. New York: Library of America, 1999.
(The book was originally published in 1931.)
So, friends of mine in
Although I’ve read Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, both of whom I love, I’d never, for some reason, read any Hammett. Being the movie illiterate that I am, I haven’t even seen such classics as The Maltese Falcon or The Thin Man (although that one featured in Shirley Damsgaard’s Witch Way to Murder, which is the last mystery I read), so this was a good “opening act” for me as far as this new book discussion group goes. What was nice about this particular book is that, although most of Hammett apparently takes place out west
Now that I’ve had this brief introduction to Hammett (and sticking to my new “give every author at least two chances rule,” I will be reading more, especially since a friend of mine upon hearing I was reading him told me to “drop everything and read The Maltese Falcon”), I can say that maybe the reason I haven’t read Hammett is that I somehow intuited I wasn’t going to like him as much as Chandler and Macdonald. That’s not to say he isn’t terrific and that I didn’t enjoy this book; it’s just to say, based on this one book, I like the other two authors better.
However, one of my father’s favorite quotes (or at least it was when we were children, apt to be complaining about how you can’t get good pizza in England or you can’t get good chocolate in America) is “Comparisons are odious,” so let’s quit comparing (although, is it really possible to write about one of these authors without comparing him to the other two?) and get down to the business of talking about the book. First of all, you may want to give yourself a double shot of testosterone before settling down in your huge, dark brown, leather chair facing the deer head on the wall, whiskey glass in one hand, cigar in other, to read this book. Then again, maybe you don't need to dose yourself as this book could serve as the double shot of testosterone you’ve needed to help you face that nasty co-worker/neighbor/other driver. I’m not complaining: must be the tomboy in me who every so often really loves a good, testosterone-laden read. Just don’t expect to find any realistic female characters.
In a (teeny-tiny) nutshell (one even the squirrels can barely find, because I so hate to give away plot), The Glass Key is about gambler and political-fixer Ned Beaumont who happens across the dead body of a Senator’s son. This is hard-boiled fiction, so naturally, we have plenty of rough-and-tough guys (including Mr. Beaumont, of course – a tall, thin, dark and handsome sort of rough-and-tough), corrupt politicians, and the mob all involved. We also have some young, angry, tough-talking ladies. And we have mysterious, threatening clues, along with someone who seems to be the obvious murderer. That’s all I’m revealing. Oh, except for the fact that you’ll also come across plenty of telephone-bells ringing (when did telephones ditch their bells and begin to ring on their own?) and people who smile tepidly, which they no longer do now that adverbs are sinful. Tell me I’m hell-bound, but I just love people who smile tepidly.
I love the matter-of-fact way these old hard-boiled novels are written. At least, I love it when I read it in an old hard-boiled novel. I’m not too keen on the fact that everyone from romance to epic-family-saga writers tries to imitate it these days. This is the genre to which it belongs. Finding it elsewhere is like finding a mastiff in the midst of a miniature poodle competition. Here’s a beautiful example of what I mean, taken from page 692, which is somewhat random, because I could have taken it from any page:
Ned Beaumont walked five blocks through the rain to a drug-store. He used a telephone there first to order a taxicab and then to call two numbers and ask for Mr. Mathews. He did not get Mathews on the wire.
Terse is also wonderful, when it’s used this way,
“Hinkle smiled with bad teeth…” (p. 662)
If I’d been describing Hinkle, I probably would have provided three or four sentences to tell you the exact state of his teeth. But, I read a book like this and think, “Gee, I wish I could be so succinct and still manage to get readers to conjure up perfect images.” Again, though, “terse” has become too trendy now, and most writers can’t pull it off nearly as well, so that instead of giving readers perfect images, they provide readers with big fat question marks taking up full pages.
I was interested that Hammett obviously wasn’t allowed to use any bad language in the book. I love the way this is handled, with such phrases as “He swore,” just as matter-of-factly as the rest of the book. However, given the lack of something as innocent as a “damn” or “hell” here or there would be, I was surprised at how extraordinarily violent the book is. I know violence is an important feature of hard-boiled novels, but I was thinking that violence in a book where no one can swear must not be quite so violent. Wrong.
At one point, Ned Beaumont (I refer to him first-and-surname, because Hammett refers to him that way throughout the book. He never becomes plain old “Ned”) is held hostage and beaten over and over again every time he stubbornly makes for the door to try to escape. I haven’t read anything so brutal in a long time (I used to be able to handle violence both in books and on film much better than I do these days, and I have to admit I was beginning to feel a little queasy after all those beatings, convinced he surely ought to be dead by now). I was dragged right in, as I always am when I read mysteries, heart pounding, wondering how on earth he was going to get himself out of this one, knowing perfectly well he would (and also knowing perfectly well that Ranger, dressed head-to-foot in black and toting mysteriously-gotten illegal weapons, wasn’t suddenly going to appear in the window, a la a Stephanie Plum mystery, to rescue him, although I was half-convinced he should). I must say, the way he did finally get loose was one of the more clever escapes I’ve read in a long time (then again, maybe I’ve just read too many Stephanie Plum books).
Despite the violence, I thoroughly enjoyed the book. If it weren’t so embarrassing to admit it, I’d tell you that the poignant ending very nearly put a lump in my throat (I mean, who gets lumps in their throats reading testosterone-laden fiction?). I did a little research on Hammett after I’d finished and discovered that this novel, apparently, was his personal favorite. So, it will be onto The Maltese Falcon and others soon to see if I can figure out why he would have felt that way. Oh, and maybe it’s time to do a little re-reading of