Friday, June 07, 2013

The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett

The Thin ManThe Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I will freely admit that part of why I read this book was that I enjoyed what I have seen of the movie so much. I actually didn't get to watch all of it, as I caught it on Turner Classic Movies after it started and wasn't able to watch the whole movie. I made a note that I wanted to read the book and get the whole movie set on DVD at some point. Additionally, I am interested in the roots of the detective novel. You can't explore detective fiction without reading Dashiell Hammett. So here we go....

I liked this book. It starts out very well. I was instantly drawn into the story from the first sentence. The writing is crisp and ripe with that heady atmosphere of the early 20th Century (1930s). There is a cynicism apparent in the characterization and the dialogue that speaks of its noir tone. That makes sense in light of the fact that it takes place during The Great Depression and right at the end of the Prohibition years. I was quite surprised at the frank elements of sex, drug/alcohol abuse, and crime, and a hint of police corruption (clearly I haven't read much pulp/noir classic fiction). Sadly, the 'n' word was used, which I could have done without. I have to say I appreciated the unsympathetic portrayal of human nature more than the actual mystery. Hammett's lens of humanity (via Nick) is not at all rose colored, but it's very astute and the characters were well-drawn. Overall, this was very good. While it did have some good twists and turns, it was rather anticlimactic in the end.

Nick Charles is a suitably amiable narrator. He seems experienced and wise to the ways of the world, nobody's fool. Yet he isn't completely jaded or lacking in integrity and honor. People seems to like him and open up to him, but he's not a man to take advantage of. While Nick is now retired from private investigation, his acquaintances draw him into a case unwillingly. I think Nick's nose for a mystery leads him the rest of the way. Nick proves that his investigative skills have not weakened in his retirement. I must say that I enjoyed the fact that Nora's a very perceptive woman with a good brain for investigation as well, even though she serves in the capacity of a part-time sidekick to Nick. Available to give a helping hand and a word to point him in the right direction. Hammett teaches me how to write a novel in which the mystery is tag-teamed by two instead of where the main character works alone and always knows more than anyone else.

This novel had me laughing a lot initially. Hammett's writing was quite witty, albeit cynical. Nick and Nora definitely like their booze, and have strong opinions on good quality alcohol. Their constant drinking was a source of humor to me, although I did wonder what effects it had on their liver.

Not one of the characters in this book is what I would consider well-adjusted, outside of Nora, and possibly Nick. Nora as seen through Nick's eyes doesn't reveal a whole lot about her except that she is very observant and has a nurturing nature (shown in the way she cared for and fussed over Dorothy). She also seems to lack patience for gossipy types, considering her dislike of Tip, a hostess in their social circle. She clearly loves Nick and feels comfortable with him to say what she thinks. She doesn't coddle him, although she does see to his comfort and is affectionate. She keeps things real with him and tells him the truth when he needs to hear it. I enjoyed their banter. Nora seems like a woman of her times, but is neither overly submissive or dominant in a way that would be unlikely for her times. In comparison to other women in the book, she comes off as the ideal mate to a seasoned man of the world--attractive, accepting, intelligent, socially graced, and fun-loving. I found it amusing how captivated the police detective, Guild was with Nora.

Mimi, the ex-wife of the missing man that starts the case that this novel revolves around, is a negative contrast. She is calculating and emotionally unstable. Her cruelty towards her daughter and her tendency to manipulate others cancels out her clearly considerable beauty and physical charms. Nick's narrative suggests that she is envious of her daughter (who is described as gorgeous and beautiful for her young years by few of the male characters). Despite these negative traits, she's not quite the quintessential femme fatale one expects to encounter in noir fiction. Dorothy herself was hard to read. She seems to lack emotional stability, but that makes sense in light of the abuse she suffers with her mother, and the fact that she probably gets far too much and unwanted attention from men for her young age. She latches onto Nick and Nora as a substitute parental unit, as they represent stability that she has lacked in her family life. Other characters also have a rather vivid life, despite the shorter length of this novel. As any good mystery writer, Hammett gives the reader a healthy list of suspects from which to choose the culprit, and I didn't guess who it was until Nick reveals the murderer.

As I said earlier, I found the denouement rather lacking in tension, which did dim my enjoyment a bit. Additionally, this book falls into periods of expansive dialogue towards the end that felt a bit tedious. Despite those shortcomings, this was still an enjoyable book. I would have to agree that this book is quite different in feel from the movie. I wonder if that is because of the Movie Codes. I don't think they could have gotten away with putting some of the more frank elements in this novel in the movie version, so they played up the witty banter and humorous elements from the novel.

All in all, I enjoyed my first exposure to Dashiell Hammett. I felt truly immersed in this time period and I liked Nick and Nora as main detectives. I like reading about main characters who are married, and this is definitely one to recommend to readers who enjoy this theme. I will be reading The Maltese Falcon in the near future.

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