After I saw the 1942 film version of The Glass Key, I was anxious to read Dashiell Hammett’s novel that is the basis of the film. (It’s possible I read the novel years ago, but my memory is a bit fuzzy on this point.) The novel is told from the point of view of Ned Beaumont, a gambler and political operative for Paul Madvig, who runs the Voters League. Madvig is helping Senator Ralph Bancroft Henry in his reelection bid, which Madvig also hopes will help him win the heart of the senator’s daughter, Janet. The three male characters—Ned Beaumont, Paul Madvig, and Senator Ralph Bancroft Henry—are willing to do what it takes to advance their own agendas, and that includes ignoring the rules and breaking the law.
I have written two blog posts about the 1942 film adaptation of The Glass Key. Click here for my first blog post; click here for my second post, which I wrote for the Classic Movie Blog Association’s 2020 Fall Blogathon: Politics on Film.
Ned Beaumont does have a set of ethics that he bases on loyalty. His friends can count on him, and they reciprocate. And they won’t let the law limit their willingness to help out a friend. As a gambler and Paul Madvig’s friend and political operative, Beaumont is privy to a lot of backroom dealing and politicking. Part of his value to Madvig is his ability to ferret out information and then use it to protect Madvig and their other operatives. Beaumont’s job becomes much more complicated when Taylor Henry, the senator’s son and Janet’s brother, is found murdered.
(This blog post about the novel The Glass Key contains spoilers.)
The novel is much darker than the film. Here are just a few examples of the differences between the two:
◊ Beaumont is a gambler in the novel. His gambling debts are taken care of by Madvig. In the 1942 film, gambling is never mentioned, and Beaumont’s assistance in Madvig’s work doesn’t often stray outside the law.
◊ Taylor Henry’s murderer, his own father, claims that his son’s death was an accident in both the novel and the film, but it’s hard to believe his assertion because of the senator’s political ambition. In the novel, the senator wants to kill Paul Madvig before he can tell the truth to the police about the senator’s role in Taylor’s death.
◊ It’s clear in the novel that Senator Henry wants his daughter Janet to marry Madvig because he needs Madvig’s political maneuvering and loyalty. He never considers his daughter’s feelings because he is mainly interested in his own political future. In the film, Janet agrees to see Madvig because she wants to help her father, at least until the election is over.
In the 1942 film, Taylor Henry’s murderer is brought to justice, and Jeff Gardner is arrested for the murder of Nick Varna. (Gardner works for Varna, who oversees the gambling operations in town.) Murderers are brought to justice, which fits the mandates of the motion picture code in 1942, but what about political corruption? Is Paul Madvig serious when he tells a reporter at the end of the film that anyone he backs is sure to become the next governor? Just how much clout did the head of the Voters League carry in 1942, or earlier if you consider that Dashiell Hammett’s novel was serialized in Black Mask magazine in 1930 and published as a book in 1931? I still wondered about this as I read Hammett’s novel.
I tried to do an online search about voters leagues in general, but I couldn’t find much information. (The only information that came up consistently was about the League of Women Voters.) I wondered if the term voters league was a kinder name for political machine, a term used when politics were run by people like William M. “Boss” Tweed (1823–1878), who ran the political machine called Tammany Hall in New York City. Maybe Paul Madvig’s Voters League was a concept that the film’s writers (and Dashiell Hammett) didn’t feel the need to explain to 1942 viewers because it was common knowledge going by a fictional screen (film) name.
The back cover of the Vintage Book edition that I read describes Paul Madvig as a “ward heeler.” The copy on the back cover was not written by Dashiell Hammett, but I decided to find out what I could about ward heelers; maybe this term was the clue that I needed all along. Here is what Wikipedia has to say on the topic:
A ward heeler is an American urban political operative who works for a political party in a political ward, the smallest electoral subdivision of a city, usually to achieve an election result. A ward heeler may have controlling influence with a small clique in the ward organization. Often, ward heelers have been low-level operatives soliciting votes and performing campaign tasks on behalf of a political boss, including get-out-the-vote efforts, placing campaign signage, coordination of constituent support, etc. In many urban areas, ward heelers also serve as precinct captains.
The term originated during the period of machine politics around the turn of the twentieth century, when powerful political machines in major cities run by political bosses, such as the Tammany Hall organization in New York City, used corruption, such as graft and patronage, to maintain their power. So “ward heeler” has the connotation of a corrupt political operative. As integral players in the “spoils system,” ward heelers were often both recipients and distributors of patronage, illegal benefits from the political machine. Examples of illegal acts which a ward heeler might do include tearing down an opposition party’s posters or paying constituents for their votes. In return for his services, the ward heeler was often given a sinecure job, such as in the city’s civil service, which was controlled by the organization.
Wikipedia’s description certainly fits both Ned Beaumont and Paul Madvig, especially as Hammett portrays them in the novel. I guess a little bit of knowledge about U.S. history helps when it comes to reading Hammett’s novels about detectives and the politically connected.
Click here for more information, and additional links, about ward heelers and machine politics at Wikipedia.
Hammett is said to have written in a fact-filled, objective style. But it’s very hard for any writer to remain objective when he or she uses adjectives and repetition as often as Hammett does. It is true that Hammett almost never allows readers into the inner thoughts and worlds of his characters in The Glass Key, but I didn’t find him all that objective about his characters. For instance, Jeff Gardner is almost always described as “apish” whenever he is mentioned in the novel, and not just the first time, when he is introduced to readers. District Attorney Farr is always “pugnacious,” and his face is represented in varying degrees of “florid.” Toward the end of the novel, Farr’s face is not as red as usual:
Farr did not get up from his desk, did not offer to shake hands. He said: “How do you do, Beaumont? Sit down.” His voice was coldly polite. His pugnacious face was not so red as usual. His eyes were level and hard. (page 182)
I had to
wonder why Hammett felt compelled to remind readers of these descriptions. I
don’t think he wanted to let readers forget what he thought of his characters,
and it never sounded very positive.
Some of Hammett’s characters do show emotion. Those that show the most emotion are most often female. Women, but not the men, it seems, are allowed to be emotional. Opal Madvig, Paul Madvig’s sister, cries on Ned Beaumont’s shoulder after Taylor Henry is murdered. Lee Wilshire, Bernie Despain’s girlfriend, doesn’t like Beaumont and is only too happy to let him know it. Janet Henry needs Ned Beaumont, but he doesn’t seem too interested in her. She believes him to be a man of character, but he is honest with her about how he spends his time. Janet Henry is the one who shows emotion through Hammett’s choice of adjectives, for example:
He smiled. “Then you’re wrong. I’m a gambler and politician’s hanger-on.”
“I’m not wrong.” A pleading expression came into her eyes. “Please don’t let us quarrel, at least not until we must.” (page 149)
If readers over the decades have chosen to focus only on Hammett’s male characters, a case could be made that they show little to no emotion, and Hammett doesn’t describe what they’re thinking or feeling. But that certainly isn’t true of the female characters in The Glass Key, and readers know what Hammett thinks of his male and female characters because he reminds us again and again.
Of all the pulp novel and detective story writers that I have read so far, Dashiell Hammett may be my least favorite. I say “may” because I haven’t read every pulp novel and detective story, but I have read recently The Glass Key and The Thin Man, both by Hammett, and I didn’t find either one completely engrossing. In fact, I much prefer the 1942 film version of The Glass Key. I have not yet seen the 1935 film version, but I still want to and it’s on my list.
The Glass Key, by Dashiell Hammett • New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1989 • Originally published in 1931
List of main characters:
Ned Beaumont, gambler and political operative • Paul Madvig, crooked political boss • Opal Madvig, Paul Madvig’s daughter • Senator Ralph Bancroft Henry, seeking reelection • Janet Henry, Senator Henry’s daughter • Taylor Henry, Senator Henry’s son • Shad O’Rory, local gangster and Paul Madvig’s rival • Bernie Despain, gambler who owes Ned Beaumont money • Lee Wilshire, Despain’s girlfriend • Jack Rumsen, private detective hired by Ned Beaumont • Michael Joseph Farr, district attorney • Jeff Gardner, Shad O’Rory’s bodyguard