Which literary characters have most enchanted you, taking up residence in your mind and heart? For me: Dorothy, Frodo, Laura and her family, Harry and Hermione (the two forever linked in my mind, I can take or leave Ron). Also the little girl in The Little Princess, and James Herriot, to the extent that an autobiography is a person’s creation of himself as a literary character. Matt Osborne’s pick is considerably more adult (I’m wondering: how did I get stuck in childhood?)…
Of all the books I have read, I have only wanted to be one literary character – Ned Beaumont in The Glass Key.
It helps, of course, that The Glass Key is a work of Dashiell Hammett’s. The great Raymond Chandler, though usually miserly with praise, wrote the following of Hammett:
Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse…. He put these people down on paper as they were, and he made them talk and think in the language they customarily used for these purposes….
Hammett is said to have lacked heart; yet the story he himself thought the most of [The Glass Key] is the record of a man’s devotion to a friend. He was spare, frugal, hardboiled, but he did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before.
Ned Beaumont, like Jack Burden or Nick Carraway, is the through-man of the novel. Unlike Burden and Carraway, he is not the narrator (The Glass Key is written in the third person), but he is the sluice through which the story and the other characters flow. This is not simply a literary device – Beaumont is the kind of man that would serve this purpose in real life. He is a keen observer and a talented fixer, yet what makes him so attractive is his lack of attachment. It is his amorality that makes him the most morally laudable person in the novel. He sees only what is. He asks of people only that they be what they are.
As the novel unfolds, we learn that Ned Beaumont is the whisper-in-the-ear man for Paul Madvig, the city’s political boss and top gangster. It is election season, and Paul has formed an alliance with Senator Ralph Bancroft Henry, which is a step up the social ladder for Paul (“the aristocracy” is Ned Beaumont’s description). The situation is complicated – Paul loves the senator’s daughter, Janet Henry; the senator’s son is involved with Paul’s daughter, Opal. Things begin to unravel when the senator’s son is found dead, and Paul is suspected of the killing. A rift develops between Beaumont and Paul, yet the moves Beaumont makes seemingly always have Paul’s survival as their endgame.
As Chandler observed, Hammett excelled at speech, and The Glass Key is no exception. Consider this exchange early in the novel between Beaumont and Paul:
“Walt Ivans’s telling the world you ought to spring his brother.”
Madvig pulled the bottom of his vest down. “The world can tell him Tim’s going to stay indoors till after election.”
Or consider this from the girlfriend of a local gambler:
“You know what I did for that bum?” she demanded. “I left the best home any girl ever had and a mother and father that thought I was the original Miss Jesus . . . . [D]on’t think I’m not going to make Mr. Son-of-a-bitch wish to God he’d never seen me.”
There’s Beaumont’s tête-à-tête with Shad O’Rory, a rival gangster of Paul’s:
Shad O’Rory recrossed his legs and took out a cigarette. “Through?” he asked mildly.
Ned Beaumont’s back was to O’Rory. He did not turn to reply: “You’d hardly believe how through I am.” His voice was level, but his face was suddenly tired, spent.
And then there’s the most famous line of the novel, from Paul to Ned Beaumont:
“Get out, you heel, this is the kiss-off.”
As deft as Hammett’s crafting of dialog is, it is Beaumont who is the central draw of the novel. He navigates bookies, politicians, and gangsters, and mothers, wives, and daughters. They all, regardless of station, receive the same Beaumont treatment. He allows them their length of rope, and they can climb it to safety or tie themselves in knots with it.
Beaumont does not except himself from this. He, too, takes his beatings (literal and figurative), accepting them as the natural order of things. He harbors no illusions about who he is (“I’m a gambler and a politician’s hanger-on”) or what life holds (“Whatever you’ve done you’ve paid for and been paid for and that goes for all of us”). His advice to others trying to navigate their own corner of the world: “I hope you like it when you get it.”
And so as we view the story through Ned Beaumont, there is an inexorability to it. People largely receive what they deserve – not necessarily in terms of conventional right and wrong, but in terms of what their nature dictates. Again, the same holds true for Ned himself.
If there is a weakness in The Glass Key, it is that the book’s women are not as fully formed as the male characters. If it is thrilling when we first meet Janet Henry, it likely is because we have seen the 1942 film version of the novel, and so we envision Veronica Lake (!). Reading the book cold, one may not understand Janet Henry’s allure.
Yet, this may be of little importance, for the The Glass Key is Ned Beaumont’s tale. Perhaps he knows who killed the senator’s son from the start, and makes his private investigations only to oil the various parts of the machine so that it will produce the answer more efficiently. Or perhaps he doesn’t know, and his investigations are necessary to sow the seeds that will flower and reveal their secrets. Either way, oh to be Ned Beaumont – betting on horses, collecting on debts, taking stiff punches, dispensing cold truth, losing his friend, and getting the girl.
When I think of Ned Beaumont, I return again to Raymond Chandler. In the same essay excerpted above in which he praises Hammett (“The Simple Art of Murder”), he offers the following concluding lines, which may be the finest combination of words in the history of the English language:
[D]own these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid…. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor – by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world…. [I]f he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things.
He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks – that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.
The story is this man’s adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in. If there were enough like him, the world would be a very safe place to live in, without becoming too dull to be worth living in.
Ned Beaumont is such a man.
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Who are your favorite literary characters? I’d be delighted to hear from you in the comments!
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Some interesting results from a poll of BookRiot readers a few years ago (679 responses):
Jo March (Little Women)–29
Anne Shirley (Anne of Green Gables)–27
Scarlett O’Hara (Gone With the Wind)–23
Severus Snape (Harry Potter)–20
Samwise Gamgee (Lord of the Rings)–19
Thursday Next (Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series)–19
Holden Caulfield (Catcher in the Rye)–17
Owen Meany (A Prayer for Owen Meany)–16
Albus Dumbledore (Harry Potter)–15
Gandalf (Lord of the Rings)–15
Jay Gatsby (The Great Gatsby)–15
Lisbeth Salander (The Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson)–15
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For Matt’s most recent prior post at Bacon, click here.
For more on Dashiell Hammett, click here.
Top image: Copyright