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Thin man, good book
on April 17, 2004
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.