The first time I read this novel - sometime in the late '70s, I think - I wasn't sure what to make of it. It was nowhere near as much fun as Red Harvest or The Thin Man, and not as straightforward as The Maltese Falcon. I probably liked it even less than The Dain Curse, which I found disappointing even then.
Of the four, Ned Beaumont is the most complicated, the most reclusive and the most unpredictable. And maybe that's why the book just keeps getting better and better, because each time I read it I see deeper into his - or Hammett's - or my own - character. Beaumont, a gambler and chief assistant to a corrupt political boss, is an antihero, and only slightly more admirable than his adversaries.
On the surface, The Glass Key is a murder mystery, with appropriate clues, twists and suspects, and delivers a satisfying and unexpected solution. But the more important human story is about friendship, loyalty and love, and how those three factors are sometimes incompatible.
The title comes from a dream in which Janet Henry (the female lead) and Ned Beaumont come across a house in the woods. They're starving, and the house is full of food, but the floor is crawling with snakes. Finding a key, they plan to unlock the door, hide until the snakes leave, then return and lock the door. But the key is made of glass. It breaks in the lock, they're unable to close the door and the snakes get them. The dream is symbolic of their hunt for the truth. Once they find it, it slithers out and cannot be contained`.
It's a complex story, which has proven too complex for both the 1935 film version with George Raft, Edward Arnold and Claire Dodd, and 1942 version with Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake and Brian Donlevy. Both films failed - in different ways - to tell the whole story, and the book would be a great candidate for a cable network ten-hour novel for television.
Thinly disguised as four novelettes, The Glass Key appeared as a four-part serial beginning in the March 1930 issue of Black Mask, and was published in hardcover in April 1931.
Come on back next Tuesday, when I pick nits with Mr. Ladd and Mrs. Lake.