The last of Dashiell Hammett's novels was "The Thin Man," and what a last novel it is. A hard-edged whodunnit, Hammett's writing had become very polished and his characters even more intricate by the time he wrote this, and while it's not the best he had written, it's a solid example of his work.
Nick Charles was a rough'n'tough detective... until he married wealthy socialite Nora. Now he's retired early, drinks a lot, and has no apparent wish to come into contact with his messy past life. Enter Dorothy Wynant, daughter of weird (and possibly insane) inventor Clyde Wynant. As it happens, Wynant's secretary/mistress has just been murdered, and was found dying by his ex-wife Mimi.
Nick keeps insisting that he doesn't want to detect, but somehow he gets sucked into it anyway when a gangster (ex-boyfriend of the murdered woman) invades his home and nearly kills him. Dorothy keeps popping up and pleading for help and protection; Charles' old flame Mimi is acting oddly; and her husband has some secrets of his own. Despite Nick's aversion to detective work, he and Nora set out to unravel the mystery surrounding the Thin Man. (Wynant, for your information)
Hammett's cynical attitude was a huge part of his writing, but there's a new dimension to it in "Thin Man." Charles spends a lot of time trying to distance himself from his detective past, and in a way it feels like Hammett was distancing himself from his detective novels. Was Nick's dissatisfaction a sign of Hammett's? Quite possibly.
But many of the things about "Thin Man" are vintage Hammett: lying waifs, men in disguise, lots of lying and booze. Almost everyone is sociopathic, and Nick and Nora aren't exactly what one would call "heroes." However, the dialogue is sharp and witty and the action is slickly exciting. Best of all, Hammett's writing had evolved a bit from his minimalist style; here he describes things like Mimi snarling in a bit more detail.
Nick is the quintessential Hammett anti-hero (cynical, tough, and more than a little obnoxious), except here he's a bit weathered and tired out. Sam Spade and the Continental Op were on top of their games, but he's past his. Nora comes across as a little perkier but as tough in her own way. The crazy Wynant family, like manipulative mom Mimi and freaky son Gilbert, serves as a nice source of conflict.
"The Thin Man" wasn't the best thing Hammett ever wrote, but it's still a solid mystery read. Pass the martinis.
on July 7, 1999
Forget those movies. They took a grimly funny novel about a group of predatory monsters and turned it into a series of light comedies. As splendid as William Powell and Myrna Loy are, they cannot hold a candle to the Nick and Nora portrayed in this novel.
Hammett did not write a novel about a sophisticated couple who genteelly solve a murder while pouring cocktails and trading quips. He wrote a dark novel about an ex-detective who has married a wildly wealthy woman, and wants to spend the rest of his life managing her money. He is only faintly connected to the murders, having known the victim and his family briefly several years before, and wants nothing to do with the whole business. He is continually dragged in, however, and very nearly becomes a victim himself. Even a cursory reading of the novel should demonstrate that Hammett was up to much more than a series of one-liners with detective interruptions. Why else would Hammett, one of the most economical of authors, bring the novel to a halt to include a case history of Alfred Packer, the only American convicted of the crime of cannibalism?
There is much more here than Hollywood, or anyone else that I know of, has yet realized.
on December 6, 2002
Most folks know The Thin Man for the famous 1930s/1940s film series about detective Nick Charles and his socialite wife Nora. The films are known for being breezy and comedic rather than for the actual plot, which typically involves a murder mystery. The original novel The Thin Man is certainly of this mold, which for some might be perfect but for others (like me) a bit disappointing.
In The Thin Man we have our handsome couple tinkling champagne glasses in 1930s Manhatten. Our reluctant detective is asked to sort out some shenanigans of a former client, and his very dysfunctional family. We are entertained by cameo appearances of thugs, crooks, and Asta (the family dog). It is all very cutsie without being too silly. However fans of other private detective novels of that genre, especially the Philip Marlowe stories by Raymond Chandler, will find The Thin Man to be too ... thin. No sparkling dialogue, no real nasty characters, ... no "oomph".
Bottom line: painless reading. But see the film, forget the book.
on September 21, 2003
For those of you who allow amature reviewers to guide your reading decisions, know this: Those reviews that talk about the book as being about a "destructive relationship" and the characters of Nick and Nora Charles as the user and the willing usee have made the mistake of not reading the actual text on the page, but instead have tried to apply some late-twentieth century literaty criticism, which they don't fully know how to apply, paired with the social-moral attitides toward blatant alcoholism and frivolity, to a book that is simply what it purports to be: a detective novel with imperfect characters and a perfectly logical final twist. If they find Nick Charles to be a violent womanizer, one can only imagine what they have made of Chandler's Marlowe . . . although I wouldn't be surprised to find similarly misinformed opinions of those books by the same reviewers if I could be bothered to look for them.
on April 15, 2002
This may be a "detective novel," but that's the least of it. The Thin Man is a statement of the good life, and included are plenty of style and sexiness. Nick and Nora Charles are the greatest, most reasonably decadent couple and the final, best commentary on the American high life that was thrown into such relief by the foil of Prohibition. Sure, there's a murder mystery, but there's also raw roast beef and onions, plenty of onions, from an all-night deli, washed down with perpetual scotch and soda. ... Dashiell Hammett wrote Nick Charles in order to be Dashiell Hammett: drunk, yes, but so what? Once great, always great, as long as you leave a legacy that people admire.
on November 15, 2003
The Thin Man is a wonderful novel. Written in the classic Hammett style, the story is full of twists and turns of the interaction of well defined, recognizable characters.
The central characters are Nick and Nora Charles. Nick has been a history as a successful private detective. Nora is a wealthy socialite. Together they are an intriguing and fun couple, who are forced into investigating the circumstance surrounding the mysterious death of a secretary and the unexplained disappearance of an eccentric,wealthy scientist.
The story is so well crafted that everyone becomes a serious suspect and you are left chasing after each individual motive, trying to "figure it out" before the Charles' do.
This novel is a classic from start to finish.
If you have never watched the classic Black and White movie from the 1930's, THE THIN MAN, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, you have missed out on a treasure, although the book was better and more in-depth.
The movie mirrors the book the closest of any I have seen. The reason, Dashiell Hammett was there to keep it true to the novel. Many of the delightful lines are directly out of the book!
This is a grand and classic detective tale.
on July 25, 2002
This book actually is worth reading a couple of times. Read it the first time for fun, but then reread it to see what you missed seeing the first time around.
You probably know the basic plot. A former private eye has given up on the detective work after his wife has inherited her father's businesses, and is running her financial affairs for her. On vacation, they run into his former acquaintances and, of course, a mystery develops which he reluctantly is persuaded to investigate.
There are a lot of undertones here. The obvious fact is that both husband & wife are slipping into alcoholism, although he's ahead of her. He has lost interest in what was once his very life. He apparantly slips out on her on occasion, and she seems to tolerate it...they obviously love each other. But he's not the man he once was. He's going to avoid violent confrontations and he takes the easy way out. His drinking habit, his unwillingness to exert himself in solving a crime, the fact that the only noticeable cheating on Nora is at a party where the other woman apparantly drags him off...all this indicates a once vital person such as Sam Spade or, to compare with another author's detective, Phillip Marlowe who is losing interest in life.
I wonder if this book didn't inspire Raymond Chandler's idea for POODLE SPRINGS which opens with Phillip Marlowe's having married a wealthy woman. Chandler only wrote four chapters before his death and Robert Parker finished it, showing Marlowe as too rough hewn a character to settle into the wealthy life style.
But Nick Charles gave in to it, and maybe was worse off for doing so.
This isn't the strongest of Hammett's books, but it sure is worth reading and wondering a bit about.
on June 23, 2002
Unlike the famous film version starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, the characters of Dashiell Hammett's THE THIN MAN range in tone from vapid to vicious, with only Nick and Nora Charles emerging as somewhat similar to their cinematic counterparts. The plot is also considerably less lean, and Hammett packs it with a number of unnecessary excursions that tend to sidetrack the flow of action. The result is less of an action-packed detective story than it is a portrait of New York in the early 1930s, where cops are brutal and stupid, society rubs shoulders with criminals in lowlife speakeasies, and every one is out for what they can get.
And what they want are sex and money and more sex, preferrably laced with bootleg liquior. Fans of the film will easily recognize the basic plot: retired detective Nick Charles is unwilling dragged into the search for a former client, inventor Clyde Wynant, who is wanted for questioning in connection with the brutal murder of his secretary-mistress. But not only the police want him: ex-wife Mimi is low on funds and would like to lay hands on his dough, his estranged children Dorothy and Gilbert have vested interests of their own, and Mimi's current husband is playing his own hand as well. The characters are considerably darker here, particularly in reference to Dorothy and Gilbert, with Dorothy a manipulative and hard-drinking little tramp and Gilbert an ineffectual weakling; mother Mimi is viciously neurotic and abusive; and the missing Clyde Wynant is so eccentric that whether or not he had a hand in the murder he clearly needs to be locked up. To further complicate matters, both Dorothy and Mimi are on the make for Nick Charles. As for Nick and wife Nora, they possess considerable sparkle--but they too are of this world, Nick clearly en route to an alcoholic hell and pulling Nora along with him.
Hammett writes with his usual strength, but as a novel THE THIN MAN lacks the focus of his more famous THE MALTESE FALCON, and his digressions and excursions hinder the book as a whole. Even so, his dark and frequently witty look at the underbelly of depression-era New York packs enough punch to bring it in at a solid four stars. Recommended for fans of the classic "hard boiled" style, but probably of more interest to hard-core completists than casual readers.
on September 12, 2000
The Thin Man, Dashiell Hammett's high-society detective novel, is most definitely NOT like the movies based on the book. While the movies are about a gay, carefree couple who solve crimes and do a lot of social drinking, the book is more about a couple in a destructive relationship. Nick only married Nora for her money, and they both know it. He's also a womanizer and an alcoholic (as is Nora). Nora is a younger woman who seems enchanted by Nick's sinful ways, and allows him to use her as he feels free to. The whodunit mystery, although discussed very much in the book, is not the most interesting part of the novel, nor did Hammett intend it to be. Read it for the satirical potrayal of bad relationships. Not just Nick and Nora's, but the dysfunctional (although dysfunctional may be an understatement) family they help to solve the murder.
The Thin Man is also notable for the use of a certain word to describe male arousal. Hammett was attempting to pave the way for other authors to discuss sexuality more openly. Unfortunately, it didn't quite catch on.
on July 6, 1999
I believe it was F. Scott Fitzgerald who once said, "Hammett is one of those good writers ruined by Hollywood." This book shows Fitzgerald's quote in action.
Don't misunderstand me, 'The Thin Man' is an excellent story. It's amuzing, tense, and contains possibly Hammett's most memorable characters, but it's also a complete departure from his previous novels. In a way, 'The Thin Man' is a farewell. Here we have a once hard-boiled detective, Nick Charles, who has settled down with his wise-cracking wife, Nora, and doesn't want anything to do with his previous work. Instead, Nick drinks, and drinks, and drinks, and goes to parties, and hosts parties, and the like. Whenever anyone questions Nick over the case that he's rumored to be working, Nick simply claims that he doesn't want anything to do with being a detective and leaves it at that.
This being Hammett's final novel, I believe that it an all too valid assumption that Hammett was using the character of Nick to symbolize himself and his own mentality. To connect this with Fitzgerald's comment, following the publication of 'The Thin Man', some movie studio handed Hammett a check for something like $40,000 for use of the characters, cementing his literary decrepitude, and he never worked again.
But it is a good read, very good, and while I would have liked to have given it the full five stars, i've chosen to remain with four, as 'The Thin Man' just doesn't compare with many of Hammett's other classics.