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Top mysteries challenge review: The Glass Key by Dashiell Hammett

Year of publication: 1931
Genre: Thriller
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Amateur (gambler, sworn in as a (crooked) district attorney's special investigator)
Setting & time: An unnamed American city, contemporary

Gambler Ned Beaumont is the right-hand man of crooked politician and crime boss Paul Madvig. The latter is supporting a senator for re-election and plans to marry his daughter. Then the senator’s son is murdered and people start getting mysterious letters that implicate Madvig in the murder, and Beaumont, who considers Madvig to be his friend, starts investigating the case as a gang war is brewing.

This is one excellent tour de force of a thriller. Red herrings, twists, crossings and double-crossings – this story has them all, even twists that are so twisted that some of them become double switchbacks. You never really get a complete grip on what is going on – the plot moves too fast and every character is too slippery and untrustworthy to get a handle on and most of them are unsavoury as well, leading you to mistrust even the most innocent-seeming characters.

The style is clipped and to the point and the plot just as hard-boiled as in Red Harvest, which it resembles in that it shows a small city in the grip of criminal gangs. Only here there is no tough Continental Op to clean up the town; there is only Ned Beaumont who is a criminal himself, one whose whim (and possibly loyalty to a friend, although I have my doubts about that) leads him to investigate the murder and whose apparent weakness – he is not a fighter and hardly defends himself when attacked – leads people to underestimate what he is capable of doing by pure cunning.

Rating: One of the classics of the genre. 4+ stars.

Books left in challenge: 71

Place on the list(s): CWA # 31; MWA # 38


George said…
Some have argued this is Hammett's best book. I think RED HARVEST is better, but THE GLASS KEY is right up there.
Anonymous said…
For the genre - I love the Coen Brothers adaptation of the Glass Key as the basis for "Miller's Crossing". They changed quite a bit, but the overall film is brilliant and my favorite Coen Bros. and gangster film hands down.

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