The Glass Key

The Thin Man is essentially your traditional detective story. A crime happens, a detective gets involved and investigates, eventually isolating the guilty party at a dinner party. Reading it feels like a journeyman work, where an author is looking at the classic detective story and trying to figure out where the soft points are, where it can be nudged into a new shape. I also found Nick and Nora less compelling than Sam Spade, and their situation generally safer, less fraught. I think the semi-comedic treatment of the characters by William Powell and Myrna Loy in the 1930-something movie is not dissonant with the text. In fact though, it was his last novel, in 1934. It represents not a beginning of his development, but the end-point.

The Maltese Falcon is also probably better known in its movie form, starring Humphrey Bogart in his break-out role that ushered in the age of Film Noir. It’s a less straightforward tale, because the mystery gets submerged in some intrigue relating to a gem-encrusted statue of a falcon. The Maltese Falcon moves the detective and his immediate milieu down from the respectability of the Christie sleuth and into the peripheral of the criminal world. In Christie’s main line of works, with Poirot, those who commit crimes are rarely criminals, but are “ordinary” citizens pushed into murder by circumstances.

The only mystery is actually incidental to that plot line – who killed Miles Archer? This is an evolution of the form – the focus shifts away from a puzzle and onto unique human ingredients and drives which exist for their own sake, as it were, and not purely as puzzle elements. Moving from this towards the more formulaic approach of The Thin Man is a strange artistic and creative decision.

The Glass Key was written immediately after The Maltese Falcon. It moves not only the detective, but the whole world, into the criminal society. It is thus effectively a kind of world-building exercise as much as a story. The detective becomes an almost entirely political entity in Aristotle’s terms, not a problem-solver. Indeed, he is literally a political agent working for a crime boss in near control of a city.

Perhaps because of this shift, where I found all the portraits and dialogue in The Maltese Falcon interesting and compelling, I found those in The Glass Key to be almost arbitrary at times. I think that very close examination of the text and its historical context would reveal a schema for their behaviour, but for someone reading it 80 years later it borders on the surreal more than once. The dialogue has gone from being sharp to being overly elliptical, and the characters from being uncompromising to being unpredictable. It feels like Hammett over-reached himself in moving towards a crime novel that was about the criminal’s world and not his crimes.

In large part, I think this reminds me more of mid-career Ellroy, particularly or White Jazz and American Tabloid than of Chandler or even The Thin Man, which was the next novel he wrote.

There is no doubt however, that while there are moments that need a leap of faith, the book is a fascinating. I essentially read it in two lengthy sittings, and I can readily see myself returning to it to try and unravel its mysteries far more readily than The Thin Man or The Big Sleep, or other classic hard-boiled detective fiction.

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