Nostalgia City Mysteries

Mark S. Bacon

Category Archives: paper books

Glass Key: A lesser known Hammett Classic

The Glass Key
Dashiell Hammett
Vintage 214 pages
$9.99 Kindle, $11.38 trade paper

Tall, lean Ned Beaumont smokes green-dappled cigars. He’s a gambler and sometimes deep thinker. Absently, he strokes his moustache with a thumbnail. Professionally, he’s a fixer for big-city political boss Paul Madvig. Beaumont is not above violence, a little blackmail and the necessary bribery that goes into keeping a metropolitan political machine running. He has a code, however expedient it might seem, and Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key is all about how far Beaumont is willing to go to protect and serve Madvig.

There’s enough seedy, dark atmosphere here for several noir novels, but Hammett is the father of the genre, so you expect nothing less. Reviewing this story, which The-Glass-Key-new-cover blends murder, politics, blind love and friendships pushed to the limit, from a perspective of more than 80 years after it was first printed, poses problems. Because Hammett pioneered scenes with street lights casting deep shadows across people’s faces, furtive looks and street-tough, depression era dialog, you get the feeling you’ve heard this all before. For example, the little we learn of Beaumont’s background is that Madvig picked him up out of the gutter and gave him a job. Heard that before? Perhaps Hammett lifted the line from Dickens or someone else, but in The Glass Key, he owns the tough-talk dialog and everything that came later is just a copy.

The story is relatively simple, again something we’ve seen bits of before in later dramas and novels. Madvig wants to put his political power behind Senator Henry for re-election. Beaumont counsels against it but realizes that his advice will not likely be heeded because Madvig is in love with the senator’s daughter. When the senator’s son is found murdered, there’s enough suspects to go around.

Beaumont is not a detective, but his knowledge of the unidentified eastern city’s underworld—and crooked politicians—gives him several leads to chase. Before he can start sorting out the murder, however, he has to find a bookie, Bernie Despain, who has scrammed with $3,250 of Beaumont’s winnings. That accomplished, Beaumont is beaten up, tortured and lied to, not necessarily in that order, as he deals with a sycophantic DA, a sadistic mob boss and women who are not quite what they seem.

Hammett relies on facial expressions to communicate characters’ personalities and emotions.

His hair was a florid stubble above a florid, pugnacious face.

He moved the corners of his mouth impatiently.

His face was tired and sallow.

Her face was a tinted statue’s.

The-Glass-Key-vintage-coverIn combination with facial expressions, he gives the reader a generous dose of noir dialog.

“How far has this dizzy blond daughter of his got her hooks into you?”  

“What’s the idea,” He demanded. “What’s the idea of talking to the little lady like that?”

The Glass Key was written in 1931, just after The Maltese Falcon and before The Thin Man, two of his more famous novels. It was turned into two films, a 1935 version with George Raft and a 1942 movie with Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. Neither film is available on Netflix and only the 1942 film can be found on Amazon.

Hammett takes Beaumont on a circuitous journey–almost Kafkaesque at times–to find murderers, to find the truth and to find himself. It’s a journey most readers will enjoy and for students of noir it offers similarities and stark differences with the Falcon which preceded it.

New crime books briefly noted


Way to Go

Jennifer Moss
Black Opal Books  294 pages
$3.99 Kindle    $10.55 trade paper

When motivational speaker Jessica Way entered the squad room, she stopped to smile at every cop who was staring at her.  When Det. Ryan Doherty asked her to sit down “she scrutinized Ryan from head to toe in a way that made him feel almost violated.”   She told the detective she thought someone was trying to kill her, but he didn’t take her quite seriously.  A day later she was dead, shot in the face.  This novel is the second in the series.


City of Darkness and Light

Rhys Bowen
Minotaur Books   320 pages
$11.04 Kindle    $19.99 hardcover

I got my first introduction to Ms. Bowen in her earlier, delightful Constable Evans books that take place in Wales.  You learn about Welsh customs, geography and language while you’re solving a mystery.  This new book is the 13th in the Molly Murphy mystery series featuring feature an Irish immigrant woman in turn-of-the-century New York City.


Drowning Barbie 

Frederick Ramsay
Poisoned Pen Press  250 pages
$6.99 Kindle  $21.20 hardback  $13.46  paperback

The intriguing title of this mystery is exceeded in bizarre only by the name of the first murder victim: Ethel Smut.  This is the nineth in Ramsay’s Ike Schwartz series of police procedurals.


Pinkerton’s Great Detective:  The Amazing Life and Times of James McParland

Beau Riffenburgh
Viking  384 pages
$32.95 hardback

McParland was a top man in Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency and a tough character.  In creating this biography Riffenburgh used recently released Pinkerton archives.  He tells, among other things, how McParland became famous breaking up the Molly Maguires, an infamous gang of coal miners accused of murder, arson and other crimes.   McParland was, according Ben MacIntyre’s review in The New York Times, “the prototype of a character that has become an adored part of America’s cultural landscape, the hard-boiled gumshoe, the lone sleuth in search of justice.”


Jeff Parker’s reissues

When was the last time you read a crime story by T. Jefferson Parker?  Four of his relatively recent novels, Storm Runners,The Fallen, California Girl and Cold Pursuit have been reissued. Parker’s latest is The Famous and the Dead, the conclusion to his series about Los Angeles County sheriff ’s deputy Charlie Hood, attached to the ATF, working along the U.S.-Mexican border.  The Washington Post said the book was, “not only well-plotted and suspenseful, but subtle, surprising and endearingly perverse.”  Three-time Edgar winner Parker rarely disappoints.

Discover Cornell Woolrich, author of “finest suspense novels ever written”


If you’re a mystery or suspense fan and have never heard of Cornell Woolrich, let me introduce you to one of the most prolific, stylistic and ingenious writers of the noir era.  His life was in some sense a tortured one containing successes and failures and dominated by his overbearing, wealthy mother.   Perhaps best known for his short story, Rear Window, which became an Alfred Hitchcock movie, Woolrich wrote more than 25 novels, numerous screen plays and dozens of short story collections.   According to Woolrich novels and short stories were used as the basis for more than 125 movies and TV dramas.

Woolrich died in 1968; few people attended his funeral.

Born in New York City in 1903, he struggled throughout the late 1920s and early 1930s writing short stories and (uncredited) screenplays for feature films in Hollywood.  While in California he married a producer’s daughter, but the marriage was short-lived and Woolrich returned to New York and his mother.  During the 1930s he wrote three novels and many short stories which appeared in pulp mystery magazines.  Gradually through his inventive plots and swift pacing he gained recognition and soon started cranking out superb noir suspense novels, many of which–if not all–became movies or TV dramas.

Eleven novels Woolrich published during the 1940s are “unsurpassable classics in the poetry of terror,” writes Francis M. Nevins, mystery writer, editor and Woolrich scholar.  Writing in the introduction to a Woolrich collection, Nevins says, “These [eleven] titles, all published between 1940 and 1948, make up the finest group of suspense novels ever written.”

The 1940s novels earned Woolrich a substantial living and a reputation on par with the best at work in noir.

Nevins says Woolrich’s world, “is a feverish place where the prevailing emotions are loneliness and fear and the prevailing action a race against time and death.”

“Woolrich’s fictional world is more discordant and threatening, and therefore perhaps more contemporary than that of either [Dashiell] Hammett or [Raymond] Chandler,” says Richard Rayner in the introduction to the 1988 Simon and Schuster collection, “Rear Window and Other Stories.”

Rear Window

This is one Woolrich collection that’s available, not the one mentioned in this article.

Rayner describes the situation one of Woolrich’s protagonists finds herself in as “something which might have been invented by Kafka on a bad day.”

The Woolrich novels are compelling but so are his short stories–his short crime tales from the 1930s are an excellent introduction to this author.  Originally this article was going to be a review of the “Rear Window” collection, but not only is it out of print, it seems to have disappeared.   In fact, many of Woolrich’s books are becoming rare.  Amazon and ebay prices for many used novels and story collections can reach more than $100 although many are available (used) in the $10 to $50 range.

There are other Woolrich collections called “Rear Window” available online but no listings I found provide the names of the stories included.  Thus, let me introduce you to a few of the master’s tales that you may find in more than one collection.

Woolrich stories often find average citizens stuck in impossible situations.  Such is the case in I Won’t Take a Minute (1940).  Protagonist Kenny is walking his fiancé home from work one evening and she has to stop at an apartment building to drop off a package that her boss asked her to deliver.  Kenny waits outside and she goes up in the elevator after telling him she won’t take more than a minute.  Of course she never returns, and the balance of the story is Kenny’s attempt to find her.

The Corpse Next Door (1937) is reminiscent of Poe’s Telltale Heart but Woolrich’s tormented main character is obsessed by the contents of a Murphy bed.  In, You’ll Never See Me Again (1939) , Ed Bliss has an argument with his wife who storms out supposedly heading for her mother’s house.   After two days Bliss is told that “Smiles” never made it to her mother’s and he runs afoul of the police in a frantic attempt to find his wife.  The 41-page story is filled with nighttime car chases, resourceful amateur sleuthing and repeated searches through a sinister house in the country.

In Dead on Her Feet (1935), rookie detective Smith is sent to investigate a nine-day old dance marathon and locate one Toodles McGuire, a 16-year-old whose mother has called police.   Detective Smitty, who flips over his jacket lapel to flash his badge, locates the missing girl but then finds himself investigating a murder.  His method of solving the case is macabre but effective.

Woolrich died at the age of 64 after many years of ill health and depression following the death of his mother.   According to Nevins, in a fragment of his papers found after his death Woolrich wrote, “I was only trying to cheat death.  I was only trying to surmount for a little while the darkness that all my life I surely knew was going to come rolling in on me some day and obliterate me.”

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