Dashiell Hammett


The Glass Key


So much of this world is unfamiliar. The same is true of, say, the world of the Aubrey/Maturin RN series, but even though O’Brian immerses you with his meticulous research, the author, unlike Hammett, is still our contemporary, not theirs, and he is aware of what his audience does and doesn’t know. However Hammett appears to me to be writing for readers who have a heap of different assumptions and knowledge. I’d be interested to read responses from readers who were his contemporaries – did they, like me, feel like they missed lots of motives and cues to better explain why characters speak and act the way they do? I suspect they didn’t – that he of course did not need to explain obvious social morés, references and allusions. But, for example, I just didn’t get some of the reactions in the opening conversation between Madvig and Beaumont. Reading it back again now it makes more sense – I’m way more across the power relationship between the two men – but as a setup to introduce the characters I was a bit at sea.


This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, although some writers – from decades or even centuries earlier – are less opaque to me. The different assumptions of this world are intriguing. Add to this that it’s a larger than life world – his contemporary readers would be far more able to see when Hammett was deliberately exaggerating or using a fictional motif, and where he was being gritty and realistic, perhaps drawing on his own private detective experience. He’s also playing around with concepts of heroism, which I suspect have far more to do with wild west stories than, say, today’s police procedurals.


The US political history of virtually open graft still gives me a double-take, even in echoes to today. Any system that lets you elect your local law enforcer … I mean, wow. Sure it’s possible that there are some advantages – conceptually you have this easy out that says the majority has the power to remove someone corrupt. But the avenues for abuse are just so huge: you control the media, you get influential folks on side in business, you give people reason to fear taking you on … and the world is yours. Saying it like that, of course this happens to some degree in my country, where the judiciary and the police are carefully and deliberately separated from the democratic government. But the degree, surely, is so much smaller.


This different world where everything hinges on the assumption that of course senators and newspaper owners dance to the tune set by crime bosses – something noone raises an eyebrow to. So what is the morality here? Our hero is advisor and right hand man to a guy who sorts witnesses’ disappearances. Yet still somehow our hero. And much of his heroism is his personal code – his own sense of integrity, independence, pride, masculinity. Again, out of the lone rider Western tradition, and (much acknowledged) precursor to the knight of the mean streets, Phillip Marlowe (another guy who seems to open himself up to taking godawful beatings for little perceptible gain).


May 2014