Places: The Glass Key

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: serial, 1930; book, 1931

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Detective and mystery

Time of work: 1930’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedCity

City. Glass Key, TheUnlike Hammett’s story The Maltese Falcon (1930), which carefully delineates the streets and buildings of San Francisco, The Glass Key’s primary locale is an unspecified eastern city of apparently modest size. The generic city locale allows Hammett to generalize about American society and the effect of political corruption and crime on the social structure of U.S. urban environments. Hammett was critical of the form of capitalism that he saw operating in the United States and used his criticism in his fiction to fashion a world of injustice and exploitation. The use of a mythical, unnamed city also provided him with a location lacking in familiar touchstones which might prove distracting to his readers and deflected the social and ethical impact of the narrative.

Log Cabin Club

Log Cabin Club. Gambling club on China Street that is the scene for several key episodes. The image of gambling is important in the novel’s narrative and reinforces Hammett’s generally existential view of a world ruled by chance and of the loss of a uniform set of values.

*New York City

*New York City. An interlude set in New York City provides a concrete locale that neatly replicates the nasty world left unspecified by the anonymous one. The presence of New York suggests that in both the fictional world of the novel and the real world corruption and violence are in control.

Beaumont apartment

Beaumont apartment. Residence of the amateur detective Ned Beaumont in the unnamed city. Hammett does not give this place an address or offer much in the way of description. The apartment functions as a place to which Ned retreats, in which he sleeps (but not all the time), and in general where he goes to recoup his strength. The lack of detail says something about the man who lives here. He is in many ways a cipher, undifferentiated, and undefined except by his actions: a man without a social context.

Matthew home

Matthew home. Home of the newspaper publisher Matthew, outside the city. Hammett moves the action of his novel outside the city several times, most prominently to Matthew’s home. The location underscores the complicity of the media in distorting the truth and helping to perpetuate the lawlessness and evil of the city culture. The newspaper, as an instrument of economic and political exploitation, contributes to the novel’s pervasive sense of corruption.

Senator Henry’s house

Senator Henry’s house. The senator in the novel represents the most blatant symbol of political depravity, and this depravity is reflected in his dysfunctional family. The senator’s house is also where the finale of the narrative takes place when Senator Henry confesses that he accidentally killed his son but was too afraid of losing the election to admit it, which, again, highlights the book’s focus on hypocrisy at the highest levels. And all of the emptiness of the senator’s social, economic, and political power is finally revealed when he commits suicide in his own house.

East State Construction and Contracting Company

East State Construction and Contracting Company. Ostensibly honest business that is the source of money that the corrupt manipulator gets from construction projects he arranges through his political connections. Business and politics go hand in hand in promoting devaluation of the social order. Unlike the gambling club, which suggests something clearly unsavory if not criminal, the construction company is an ostensibly legitimate business and symbol of respectability, but it, too, is corrupt. Hammett undermines the old American myth of Horatio Alger by having his character rise from the streets only to be destroyed by overreaching himself when he desperately wants to escape his past through “marrying up” and courting the “better” political element by backing the senator.

Taylor Henry’s apartment

Taylor Henry’s apartment. Trysting place used by the senator’s son. This apartment is used to illustrate Hammett’s theme of the wages of sin; it reflects the generational effects of the father’s nefarious political life. It becomes emblematic of the deceptive and seamy life that results from an upbringing in an underlying atmosphere of evil and deceit. Only this time these values are extended to sexual relations as well.

BibliographyBruccoli, Matthew J., and Richard Layman. Hardboiled Mystery Writers: Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Ross MacDonald. New York: Carroll and Graf, 2002. A handy supplemental reference that includes interviews, letters, and previously published studies. Illustrated.Dooley, Dennis. Dashiell Hammett. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1984. A basic survey of Hammett’s work and life specifically aimed at the general reader, as well as discussions of the five novels. Dooley considers The Glass Key less intense and suspenseful than the earlier novels.Gregory, Sinda. Private Investigations: The Novels of Dashiell Hammett. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985. A full-length study of the five major novels. Chapter 5, “The Glass Key: A Psychological Detective Novel,” argues that the work is an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to move beyond the genre of the detective novel into the realm of the serious psychological novel.Layman, Richard. Shadow Man: The Life of Dashiell Hammett. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981. An objective, readable, and carefully researched and documented biography. Provides valuable historical and biographical context for The Glass Key.Marling, William. Dashiell Hammett. Boston: Twayne, 1983. A concise introductory survey specifically aimed at the general reader. The brief discussion of The Glass Key focuses on the relationship of the three main characters.Metress, Christopher, ed. The Critical Response to Dashiell Hammett. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1994. Includes an introduction, which surveys the history of Hammett criticism, as well as excerpts from reviews, commentaries, and critical discussions of his novels. The section on The Glass Key includes a revised version of a complete essay on the novel by Jon Thompson.
Categories: Places