As much as I like and admire The Maltese Falcon, I've always felt closer emotionally to The Glass Key. I've always had the sense that the conflicted hero Ned Beaumont was the closest Hammett ever came to writing directly about himself.
While I occasionally miss some of the sardonic qualities of Falcon, Key is the more powerful book. Virtually every scene is charged with anxiety, anger and a fatalism not evident in any of Hammett's other novels. This is ultimately a book about doom.
I happened to read several Raymond Chandler stories before I picked up Key. At this point in my life I see Hammett as the more talented and true of the two icons. Chandler is certainly the more pleasing of the two as far as style goes. But when you compare his skills as a social observer you realize (I realize I should say) how false most of his stories are, the B movie done in high style. The exception for me, in addition to numerous short stories, is The Long Goodbye where he finally comes close to the reportorial skills of Hammett. He's confronting life not scenes from other books and movies.
I don't mean to set up a false contest here. My opinion doesn't matter, number one. And number two they are both seminal figures and fathers to us all.
But I was struck, this time through, with the bitter ruthless truth of The Glass Key.