My favourite crime novels – No. 15b

The Glass Key – Dashiell Hammett’s fourth novel is arguably the most ambitious of his books. It works both as a traditional mystery and as a political thriller. It is also one of the finest novels about loyalty and friendship that you’re ever likely to find.

The hero, Ned Beaumont, investigates the death of a senator’s son not because he is a detective – he isn’t, he’s a political fixer for his boss and friend Paul Madvig – but out of loyalty. Initially Beaumont wants to use the murder to sink Senator Henry, but Madvig is in love with the senator’s daughter and wants him to do what he can to interrupt the investigation. From here it takes the reader on a lot of detours, false trails and political intrigue, and sends Beaumont on a chase for the victim’s hat (I won’t bother to explain, better for you to actually read the book).

The third person narration style that Hammett developed in The Maltese Falcon comes to its zenith here; the prose is tight, hard-boiled, camera-eye stuff (you never learn what a character is thinking), and the only physical descriptions (something Hammett was always brilliant at) are those that serve the novel, with not a word wasted. The character of Ned Beaumont was groundbreaking for the time. He’s an everyman, not a tough detective. He’s got brains but no luck. He’s got attitude but he’s not exactly handy with his fists (which explains the many beatings he gets during the course of the novel). He’s got loyalty to Madvig, but has enough moral ambiguity to take something that Madvig desperately wants from him before the novel is over. This is joint fifteenth with Falcon because it’s practically impossible to separate them – it’s just as brilliant. It should be compulsory reading for all those who are interested in crime fiction. And not because it’s a piece of hard-boiled ‘history’, but simply a bloody fantastic read.