Dashiell Hammett: The Thin Man (1934)

The Thin Man

While I’ve devoured all of Chandler’s books, I’ve hardly read any Hammett. Way back when I started this blog, I read and reviewed The Glass Key – book and movie – and while I liked it, I never returned to him until now. Although I had both The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man on my piles, I picked the latter. I’m pretty sure they are not in the same league and it wasn’t s as hard-boiled or noir as I expected. On the contrary. It has even some elements of a screwball comedy.

It’s the Christmas season and our hero, Nick Charles, is back in New York with his young wife Nora and their schnauzer Asta. Nick used to be a PI in New York before he met Nora and followed her to San Francisco where they share a business.

While waiting in a speakeasy for his wife who is Christmas shopping, a young woman walks up to him and introduces herself as Dorothy Wynant. Nick used to know her father and her when she was a kid. Dorothy hopes he’s got her’ father’s address but he hasn’t. He hasn’t heard from Wynant in years. Shortly after this encounter, Nick hears that Wynant’s secretary and former lover Julia Wolf has been found dead, shot four times, and that Wynant is missing. Interestingly, the dying Julia has been found by Wynant’s ex-wife, the manipulative, bitchy Mimi. Everyone, including the police, is convinced that Wynant shot Julia, only Nick doubts this.

While the readers are kept guessing who shot Julia, I can’t say that the crime-solving is the most interesting element in this story. What I enjoyed the most is the description of the couple Nick and Nora and the way they spend their days and nights. Most of the story takes place in their hotel room and a huge number of people drifts in and out. Friends, acquaintances, police men, criminals. Every one is constantly downing a drink. The last thing Nick does before he goes to bed – drink, the first thing he does when he gets up – he pours himself another drink. Nora and the others aren’t much better.

Nora might not be the best developed character but she’s fun. She’s the opposite of a nagging housewife. No matter what Nick does or what happens to him, she never gives him a hard time, never freaks out. She’s almost twenty years younger than her husband and very fascinated by his old life. When he’s dragged into the investigation of Julia’s murder, she joins him eagerly and tries to help him find out who killed her.

The tone and humour throughout the book, especially in the dialogue is very dry. Not as dark as in other novels of the era but refreshingly brittle.

I only found out after finishing this novel that Hammett wrote it for the women’s magazine Redbook where it was serialised in 1934. That may explain why it’s not as dark and why there are so many female main characters. There’s Nora, Nick’s wife, the hysterical Dorothy, Mimi, her bitchy mother and Dorothy’s aunt. The male characters are rather pale in comparison.

The THin Man is certainly not Hammett’s best but it’s fun.

Has anyone seen the movie?