For a man who wrote fewer than a half-dozen novels (and a lot more short stories) in his career, Dashiell Hammett has had an oversized influence on the development of the American detective story - by which I mean the hard-boiled, private investigator or - in this case - amateur detective story. Hammett's creation of Nick Charles - and, perhaps even more so, his addition of Nora Charles (not to mention the couple's dog, Asta," remain very firmly fixed in the mystery-reading public's eye, despite having appeared in just a single novel. I suppose that goes to show the power of the movies in popularizing a character. In any case, here's what I had to say about The Thin Man some nine years ago - as usual, edited slightly.
- 0 -
A chance encounter in a New York City prohibition launches Nick and Nora Charles into the middle of a murder case involving a disappearing scientist, his strange family and acquaintances, and his mistress. That’s the basic plot of Dashiell Hammett’s novel, The Thin Man.
I don’t know if you have to be of a certain age to really enjoy The Thin Man. I suspect not – I’m certainly not old enough to remember Prohibition, and the speakeasies which flourished in New York City, particularly along 52nd Street. Many of them later became flourishing legitimate night clubs. But Prohibition – and the easygoing, two-fisted speakeasy culture – are at the heart of The Thin Man.
Right from the beginning of the book – when Nick Charles, who is both the central character and narrator, tells us, “I was leaning against the bar in a speakeasy on Fifty-second Street waiting for Nora to finish her Christmas shopping, when a girl got up from the table where she had been sitting with three other people and came over to me. She was small and blonde, and whether you looked at her face or at her body in powder-blue sports clothes, the result was satisfactory.”
And off we go. The girl turns out to be the daughter of a man whom Nick Charles knew. Nick used to be a private detective, but he married Nora – a very wealthy woman – and now, er, manages her business interests. As we will see, he also drinks a great deal. Alcohol pretty well floods this novel – just about everybody drinks, here in the middle of Prohibition, with the only regrets likely to come on the morning after.
At any rate, the girl whom we have just met tells Nick that she’s looking for her father, who seems to have vanished. Nick – soon joined by both Nora and their dog, Asta – is sympathetic, but tries not to get involved.
No such luck. Very soon, we learn that the missing man’s mistress has been murdered. Everybody – including the police – seems to believe that Nick knows a great deal more about both the disappearance and the murder than he is telling. And – with Nora’s encouragement - he soon finds himself forced into the center of the case. There are more murders and a fair amount of double-dealing, not to mention some excellent plot twists, before the full story is revealed and Nick is able to turn over the true culprit to the police.
The Thin Man is vintage Hammett, a good, hard-boiled detective story, with a fair amount of humor. The book became the basis, first for a movie based on the novel itself, and then a series of movies using the Nick and Nora Charles characters in new plots. Curiously, The Thin Man, which was Hammett’s last novel, never really spawned any sequels in print, at least during Hammett's lifetime, although he did some work on the movies as well.
If you’re familiar with the characters from any of the old “Thin Man” movies, or from the TV series which aired for a couple of seasons back in the 1950s, there are a couple of points to keep in mind. First, the movies, with their light, witty and sophisticated dialog, are a lot lighter than the book itself, which has the usual very dark undertones and events that we would expect in a Hammett novel. For example, near the end of the book, when Nick is explaining what happened, Nora gets impatient with his explanation of what had happened, and reminds him that it’s all just a theory – that the criminal was supposed to be considered innocent until proven guilty. Nick responds this way:
"That’s for juries, not detectives. You find the guy you think did the murder and you slam him in the can and let everybody know you think he’s guilty and put his picture all over newspapers, and the District Attorney builds up the best theory he can on what information you’ve got and meanwhile you pick up additional details here and there, and people who recognize his picture in the paper – as well as people who’d think he was innocent if you hadn’t arrested him – come in and tell you things about him and presently you’ve got him sitting on the electric chair."
Now that’s not exactly light dialog, and it’s fairly typical of the thought processes that we see and hear from Nick during the course of the book. There’s also a fair amount of physical violence – the police in this novel seem predisposed to slap suspects around first and ask questions later, and I suspect strongly that today’s police would find the portrayal pretty objectionable. But this is a hard-boiled novel, not nearly as much the suave, sophisticated comedy-mystery that we know from the Thin Man movies.
One final point: although the movies kept reusing the words “Thin Man” in the title – After the Thin Man, Shadow of the Thin Man, and so forth – and make it clear that they are referring to Nick Charles – Nick wasn’t the thin man. The thin man was the disappearing scientist who is the elusive subject of Nick’s search in the novel.
But The Thin Man is very much worth reading. Nick and Nora Charles are rich, sophisticated, and glamorous – and they solve murders. What more could you ask? And, as Dashiell Hammett’s last novel, The Thin Man deserves a place on your reading list.
- 0 -
To listen to the original audio review, please click here.
Next week: The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler.