Ned Beaumont (The Glass Key)

Created by Dashiell Hammett
(1894-1961)

“I can stand anything I’ve got to stand.”
— Ned Beaumont

   

Unlike Dashiell Hammett‘s other novel-length protagonists, Sam Spade, The Continental Op and Nick Charles, NED BEAUMONT is not a private eye–not even a retired one.

He’s a political hanger-on and fixer, a cigar-smoking, hard-drinking gambler with a weakness for money and women. He’s tall and slim and slick as spit, with a mustache, and obsessed with personal bugaboos, especially loyalty and personal honour. More than one wag has suggested that he was, in many ways, Hammett himself (a charge also often aimed at Nick Charles, in fact), and they’re probably not completely off-base.

He may not be an eye, but Beaumont certainly shares more than a few tributes with Hammett’s other heroes (and Hammett himself), including, most importantly, those twin bugaboos. Just as The Op pledges allegiance to The Continental Detective Agency, and Sam Spade sets out to avenge Miles Archer’s death (even though he didn’t like him much), so does Ned stick his own neck out, in the name of nothing more than friendship.

To clear his pal, Paul Madvig, a flashy, corrupt and impulsive politico, from a trumped-up murder charge, Ned takes the law into his own hands, operating in the no man’s land between rival political and criminal factions, in Hammett’s The Glass Key, first serialized in Black Mask, and later published in book form in 1931. It all takes place in an unnamed city (possibly Baltimore?) that, like Red Harvest‘s Personville, is rotten to the core.

Many, in fact, including Raymond Chandler, Julian Symons and Ellery Queen, considered it the best novel he’d ever written. Including Hammett, who not only thought it was the best novel he’d ever written, but the best novel he could write.

But wrapping it up took him a while. Flush with the wild success of his last novel, The Maltese Falcon, which brought him the fame and fortune he’d long sought, he may have celebrated a bit too much. He’d finally left the wife and kids back in California, moved to a swank hotel in New York City, and as David Peace put it, “painted the town red. A few shades of red.”

But it all caught up with him, and Hammett found himself in early 1931, after months of being sick, drunk, screwing around and just too damn lazy, unwilling or unable to whip the already serialized novel into shape for book-length publication. And then he saw the light–or possibly a demand from his publisher–and so in February 1931, he finally sat his ass down and finished up the novel in one mammoth, booze-free, thirty-one hour writing session.

The Glass Key became a bestseller, as well, and yet–to this day–is often overlooked, over-shadowed by the enduring success of The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man, both of which were bestsellers, as as well as spawning multiple film adaptations. The Glass Key was also adapted into a film, once in 1935, and again in 1942. Both films are well regarded by movie buffs, particularly the second one, but the quiet, tricky book they’re based on, told in a cold-as-ice subjective third person point-of-view that leaves so many questions unanswered, a complicated “record of a man’s devotion to a friend,” as Chandler put it, never quite caught the public’s imagination the way his other books did.

But, as author David Peace puts it in his 2012 overview of The Glass Key,

“But what books. And the best of those books, the very best of any books, the book every person should read at least once, and every writer at least once a month, is The Glass Key.” 

UNDER OATH

  • “Whatever the ultimate verdict on its literary status, it’s a compulsively readable, cooly sardonic portrait of an unredeemable noghtworld and ambiguous relationships… one of the earliest classics of noir fiction.”
    — Francis M. Nevins (1986, 1001 Midnights)

NOT THAT THERE’S ANYTHING WRONG WITH THAT…

  • But, um, the friendship between Ned and Paul? It’s vaguely suggested in the novel, and hinted at in both film version, and even more so in Miller’s Crossing, the Coen Brothers’ 1990 film (which seems more and more to me like an uncredited adaptation of both The Glass Key and Red Harvest) that Ned’s feelings towards Paul are a little, uh, complicated

SERIALIZED IN BLACK MASK

  • “The Glass Key” (March 1930, Black Mask)
  • “The Cyclone Shot” (April 1930, Black Mask)
  • “Dagger Point” (May 1930, Black Mask)
  • “The Shattered Key” (June 1930, Black Mask)

NOVELS

FILMS

  • THE GLASS KEY
    (1935, Paramount)
    80 minutes, black and white
    Based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett
    Directed by Frank Tuttle
    Starring George Raft as NED BEAUMONT
    Also starring Edward Arnold, Ray Milland, Claire Dodd, Rosalind Keith, Ray Milland, Guinn Williams
    So-so but interesting first adaptation, marred by George Raft’s  “Hey! I’m in a movie! acting style.
  • THE GLASS KEY | Buy this video | Buy this DVD  | Buy the Blu-Ray
    (1942, Paramount)
    85 minutes, black and white
    Based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett
    Screenplay by Jonathan Latimer
    Directed by Stuart Heisler
    Produced by B.G. DeSylva
    Associate Producer: Fred Kohlmar
    Starring Alan Ladd as ED BEAUMONT
    Also starring Brian Donlevy, Veronica Lake, bonita Granville, Joseph Calleia, Richard Denning, Moroni Olsen, William Bendix, Margaret Hayes, Arthur Loft, George Meader, Eddie Marr, Frances Gifford, Joe McGuinn, Frank Hagney, Joseph King
    Great adaptation, a noir classic, and in some of their scenes together, you just have to wonder about the extent of Ladd and Donlevy’s “friendship.”

TELEVISION

  • STUDIO ONE IN HOLLYWOOD
    (1948-58, CBS)
    Anthology series
    467 60-minute episodes
    Black & white
    Long-running live production, most famous, perhaps, for its production of 12 Angry Men, which later became a popular feature film.

    • “The Glass Key” (May 11,1949)
      Based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett
      Adaptation by Worthington Miner
      Directed by George Zachary
      Starring Donald Briggs, Lawrence Fletcher, Jean Carson

FURTHER INVESTIGATION

  • “The Glass Key” (2012, Books to Die For)
    British crime writer David Peace’s cry-from-the-heart tribute to what he fewels is Hammett’s greatest work.
Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.

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