The missing hat

New York City 1926

The Glass Key
by Dashiell Hammett.
Orion Books, 2012 (1931).

For a classic noir thriller with laconic dialogue, dangerous secrets, and violence both threatened and actual, it’s interesting that what struck me more than the realistic and often visceral details in the story were two separate accounts of what I think are meant to be significant dreams. Whether the reader prefers Freudian or Jungian interpretations, the fact is both dreams reveal more clearly than actions or words the psyches of two of the protagonists.

One is of a fish caught by one character and taken and released by another, and the second concerns the release of a swarm of snakes from behind a locked door. Fish, snakes, a glass key – what in heaven’s name do they signify? It may take the diligent reader till the last pages of this 1930s thriller to get an inkling but I think it’ll prove worth it.

Of course the plot initially involves a murder. Ostensibly the mystery seems to invite the question of who did it, but with a few names in the frame the follow-up questions will also involve the how, the why and the when – means, motivation and opportunity – all with the ambivalent Ned Beaumont our psychopomp, albeit one with a compromised conscience.

Baltimore in the 1920s

The action takes place mostly in an eastern American city much like Baltimore, which the author knew well, with just a brief excursus to New York. Ned Beaumont is an associate of Paul Madvig, a political bigwig in the unnamed city who’s interested in the local senator’s daughter, Janet Henry. When Ned almost literally stumbles over the body of the senator’s son in a near deserted street the scene is set for a murder investigation that threatens Madvig’s political future.

After Ned takes it upon himself to pull strings to become a special investigator for the District Attorney he has to rely on his wits more than his brawn if he wants to remove his friend from the growing list of suspects. But he’s constantly stymied by the mystery of the missing hat belonging to the senator’s son, along with the absence of a murder weapon; and who is the writer of the anonymous letters going around, each with three constantly accusatory riddles implicating Madvig?

This is an astonishing literary accomplishment, a superb example of a ‘show, don’t tell’ piece of fiction from Hammett. Character motivation is mostly revealed by means of action, speech and body language, never by the author getting into the mind of the individual to tell us what they think. Ned Beaumont, clearly a fictional version of the author himself, is physically weak, a consumptive who chain-smokes cigars and drinks like a fish; though his moral compass accepts corruption in city politics he nevertheless wants to see natural justice done, occasionally tempered by mercy if he judges it justified. He is also loyal to a fault – which comes at a high personal cost – and as a corollary feels betrayal very strongly. And all this becomes evident merely from the reader being a fly on the wall, observing tics in people’s behaviour, or changes in their tone of voice.

Dashiell Hammett in the 1930s

If you’re a fan of classic film noir then the scenarios in the ten chapters will feel very familiar, the insistent menace and claustrophobia emphasised by doors opening and closing, by dark streets, the fug of tobacco smoke, and the speakeasies rife in the age of Prohibition; and of course along with corrupt cops and sinister hoodlums there are the vamps, three or four of whom appear in the pages, all with different degrees of sophistication, virtue or righteousness.

But central to The Glass Key is the odd-couple love-hate bromance between Ned and Paul, to which we may link those two dreams that are mentioned towards the end of the novel. It’s that relationship which forms the cement that binds the various elements of this murder mystery together, for without it any resolution may well have turned out very differently, if at all.

And who’d have believed that it would all hinge on a missing hat, the item of clothing that in those now far-off days all men were expected to wear whenever they went out?

20 thoughts on “The missing hat

    1. It’s a clever, well-crafted whodunit I think, and it’s the psychological aspects of these classics that most interest me these days, plus them being a window on different times and different mores. Enjoy your reread, Annabel – I’m on the lookout for more Hammett now!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I know what you mean, Gert, though it’s also true that the range of men in these period pieces is also limited, few of whom I would personally want to be acquainted with.

      This is what I said of the women in The Maltese Falcon: “The principal females, usually addressed as sweetheart, darling or angel, are invariably young-ish and pretty and playing to type such as the vamp or drama queen, the efficient secretary or emotional leech.” Sadly that’s the case here. But it’s a rare classic genre novel that breaks away from its character stereotypes, in my experience anyway!

      Glad you liked the choice of photos, I had fun searching for ones that might be appropriate.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Do read and review The Thin Man soon, Mallika, so it can fire me up to read it too! I really liked this, for its atmosphere as well as for it being a mystery thriller.


    1. It’s definitely the atmosphere that does it for me, and it’s the same effect as I’ve noticed with other thriller writers of thy period such as Eric Ambler and James M Cain. The actual details rarely matter – what counts are that the heroes or antiheroes are hard-boiled and the females are what the males expect them to be, stereotypes.


  1. Aonghus Fallon

    That business of the hat is interesting! I re-read The Glass Key around five years ago but don’t remember it at all. In Millers Crossing, the mc’s personal code is symbolised by his hat; something to be worn at all times and never given up without a fight. And Miller’s Crossing is a hybrid of two Hammet novels, The Glass Key and Red Harvest.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve looked up the film, which I’ve neither seen nor heard of before now, and see what you mean by its borrowings from those two novels (again, I’ve not read Red Harvest – yet). The hat? At a time when hats were as de rigueur for men as gloves were for women, the fact that one wasn’t found by the body of the first victim functions as a ruse to plant evidence as well as seeming a MacGuffin in the plot: why was the murdered man hatless in a deserted city street? That’s the niggling question that runs through the thriller.

      Another thing about hats: as a kid I used to watch lots of US TV shows such as ‘Abbott and Costello’ and hats were routinely worn inside and outdoors, and stayed put even during punch-ups and after their wearers were knocked unconscious (often by the obligatory and obligingly-placed priceless vase).


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