The following is an old, recently rediscovered review of a book that I love, Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man.
As I imagine most people had, I’d first heard of The Thin Man, and its main characters Nick and Nora Charles, because of a series of films that were released during Hollywood’s Golden Age. William Powell and Myrna Loy played Nick and Nora, a glamorous married socialite couple that solved crimes in their spare time while swilling martinis and cracking wise. The first film is heralded as a classic, while the follow-ups range in quality but are still regarded as delightfully entertaining.
I’ve always liked the crime-solving couple set-up (shows like Hart to Hart, Remington Steele, and Moonlighting were some of my favorites growing up), and I consider myself a pro-league alcoholic, so naturally The Thin Man intrigued me. I’ve never actually seen the films, so as I got into the book, I was able to do so without making the usual comparisons against the film.
Nick Charles is a former private detective who recently married up. His new wife Nora is filthy stinking rich, and the two live a life of endless luxury, vacationing often and imbibing every drop of alcohol in sight. One hilarious moment features Nick waking up and asking Nora to make him a drink. “Why don’t you have some breakfast first?” Nora suggests. Nick responds, “It’s too early for breakfast.”
The couple is on holiday in New York City during Christmastime when a young woman is found gunned down in her apartment. The woman, Julia Wolf, was in the employ of Clyde Wynant, a wealthy inventor and former client of Nick’s. Of course, Wynant is the prime suspect and Nick, who wants nothing to do with the mystery and simply wishes to drink and hang out with Nora, is essentially forced into working the case. This leads him to encounters with a number of eccentric, bizarre characters, including Wynant’s ex-wife, Mimi, children, Gilbert and Dorothy, and his lawyer Macauley. Nick works with NYPD Liutenant Guild to uncover clues, find Wynant, and solve the riddle behind Wolf’s murder.
The first half of the book is supremely funny. Nick tries his best to remain as far from the crime and all involved as possible. Nora looks on in engrossed amusement, and the droll banter between characters had me laughing out loud. Also, true to lore, Nick and Nora (and damn near everyone else in Hammett’s world) are consummate alcoholics, interrupting meetings, meals, and other serious business for a cocktail (or two).
The libations and witticisms are less prominent in the book’s latter half, which actually begins taking the mystery seriously while remaining light in tone. There are several exposition-heavy passages in which characters talk about what happened. I get that this was the only way Nick could be made privy to some information, but in all honesty, it was a bit much. Paragraphs upon paragraphs of expository dialogue are not my thing.
The Thin Man is written in a sparse, first-person voice. It’s done nothing to change my opinion of first-person voice. I still very much hate the technique. But the economy of Hammett’s writing keeps the book moving at a quick pace, even during the exposition-heavy, dialogue-filled scenes. His characters are delightful creations, with Nick and Nora, of course, taking the cake. Although the film spawned five sequels, none of them were written by Hammett or based on his work. I would have loved to see where Hammett would have take them.
I found The Thin Man to be a very enjoyable read. Mystery, noir, and detective fiction are not my bag, but I enjoyed Hammett’s inventive take on the genre thanks to his genuinely unique and funny characters and clever dialogue. To this enchanting piece of work, I raise my glass in toast. Cheers! 🍸