The Thin Man
179 pages @350 wds/pg
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.
"Let's stick around awhile. This excitement has put us behind in our drinking."
Dashiell Hammett may be better known today as a character himself than as a creator of fictional private detective characters. He keeps popping up in books and movies as the.... more
The Thin Man
COMMENTARY | MOVIES
Hardboiled with a soft centre
If you've read or heard about Hammett's hardboiled detective fiction, you may not be prepared for what you'll find in The Thin Man.
Sure, there's a somewhat jaded private eye, one Nick Charles, as well as a perplexing murder to solve, incompetent cops and shady underworld characters. But there is also a wife, the unflappable Nora Charles. And there is genuine attachment between wife and husband.
Nick Charles has married into high society with Nora—or at least higher than the lowlifes he previously mingled with. And he's quite content with his new status. And Nora is quite content, even intrigued, with her hubby's nefarious occupation and his familiarity with the criminal classes.
The couple keep the martinis and the sardonically affectionate witticisms coming as he works his way through the mystery. It's a charming concept that has been much imitated over the years, at the highest level by Robert B. Parker with his Spenser novels and at the lowest level by the Hart to Hart television series.
But lest it appear Hammett has betrayed the hardboiled detective tradition—which he himself had only recently invented—note his spartan, no-frills writing style is still intact. The story still has a hard edge which is only enhanced by the bawdy, hard-drinking, very funny and loving human beings involved at the centre.
The novel, like the rest of Hammett's work, is sometimes criticized for a lack of character development. It's true that characters flit in and out of the story exhibiting only as much nuance as needed to drive the plot. But, you know, not all literature has to be character-based. And Hammett's breakneck pacing and no-frills writing, as previously shown to great effect in his now-classic mysteries The Dain Curse, The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key have been instrumental in moving American lit in this direction.
And it makes sense in this kind of first-person narrative. The Thin Man is related in the voice of Nick Charles himself and it's right we get only his initial reaction to the people he runs into in his sleuthing. Hammett has the knack of getting us the quick impression:
He opened the door wider. "He's waiting." He gave me what was probably meant to be a significant wink, but a corner of his mouth moved more than his eye did and the result was a fairly startling face.
The book title, by the way, does not refer to the detective as many people seem to think. Nor does it refer to the book's author, whose spare frame often illustrates book jackets of The Thin Man. The slender gentleman of the title is a character in the novel.
The movie version of The Thin Man is also highly recommended. Some people prefer it and its sequels to the book. But however delightful the movies are, you have to read the original novel to see what an amazing writer Hammett was and what his accomplishment was in this particular book.
One of the best-written, intelligent works of the private eye genre.
COMMENTARY | MOVIES