Saturday, March 08, 2008

Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key

(Update: for anyone who would like to join this group via cyberspace, the next book is Sweet Danger by Margery Allingham, and the meeting -- that's the day you post -- is April 26th.)

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 Connecticut who will remain unnamed decided after I’d moved out of the state to form a detective fiction book discussion group. I’m choosing to believe that they just didn’t come up with the brilliant idea until I was gone rather than that they didn’t want loud-mouthed-and-opinionated me at their gatherings and decided to wait until I was too far away and too busy to attend meetings on a regular basis before implementing the idea. Anyway, it’s such a fun idea, I’m reading the books alongside them, and I plan to make occasional appearances at their meetings when possible, and to post on the books they read. Tonight is their first gathering to discuss Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key.

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, some of this book was actually set in Manhattan. The only thing I like better than being in Manhattan is reading books that take place in Manhattan.

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 Chandler and Macdonald. None of this reading will be for comparison’s sake, mind you, just for pure pleasure (despite the fact I was just granted The Bloglily License To Compare by Lily Hamrick, whose novels and stories we are all impatiently waiting to see published to high acclaim). After all, one can’t get the best hard-boiled fiction anywhere but in America, and who’s to say one organic egg is superior to another?

P.S. If anyone else would like to join us and read the books we're reading for this book discussion group and post on them on meeting day, please let us know.


litlove said...

ooh yes, that got an itch started for hard-boiled crime fiction! Fantastic post, Emily. May I join in, in a cyber-way? I love detective fiction and it would make a great break from mothers-related stuff. I can't promise to keep up, but I'd love to try.

mandarine said...

This is strange. I do remember reading The Glass Key. I even remember starting it two or three times, at least once in French and once in English. I cannot remember whether I finished it in English or in French, but I am pretty confident I did finish it, and yet nothing remains, and certainly not the ending. I should start being a more serious reader, otherwise I should not bother reading the books: reading the back cover would leave an equivalent imprint in the Swiss cheese of my memory.

Emily Barton said...

Litlove, it would be an honor to have you join us. As soon as I hear what the next book and when the next meeting are, I'll let you know. (And don't worry about keeping up. My experience with book groups is that no one ever reads ALL the books/attends ALL the meetings.)

Mandarine, but the nice thing about having a Swiss cheese memory is saving money on books. You can re-read something, and it's as if it were brand new.

IM said...

I read the Glass Key last year and it really drew me in as well. of course as a guy, I wanted to be as tough as Ned. I tried The Thin Man but it seemed less hard-boiled. Let me know what you think of The Maltese Falcon.

Emily Barton said...

Ian, come join the group (before you're in grad school and, once again, have no time to read). Meanwhile, I'll let you know what I think of THE MALTESE FALCON once I'm done.

Rebecca H. said...

Great post! I enjoyed the book too, and hope to post details on it soon. Those violent scenes WERE hard to take -- I couldn't believe the way Ned Beaumont kept trying again and again and again to escape; he wouldn't give up, when I would long before have begun to sob and plead for mercy. He's such an enigmatic character, isn't he? I was amazed at how little information on him Hammett gives us.

Emily Barton said...

Dorr, oh yes, I would have given up and begged for mercy, too (guess that's why I'm not a male protagonist in one of these mysteries), and "enigmatic" is exactly the term I would use to describe Ned Beaumont. I think that must be one of the features of hard-boiled crime. I've read many of Ross Macdonald's Lou Archer mysteries, and he remains pretty enigmatic as well (although we do get to know him a tad better than we get to know Ned Beaumont, and we at least know that he's a bona fide detective).

Anonymous said...

The Maltese Falcon is great, Emily, and I like The Thin Man too. I've also read one by Ross MacDonald but there is definitely more Lew Archer in my future.
Fab post; next time I think we have to integrate the input from our virtual members a little more directly.

Emily Barton said...

MFS, so seems we could spend the entire first year of this club on hard-boiled fiction. Good thing you've chosen one that's a complete departure.