The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett/film and fiction

Have I mentioned how much I love Netflix? I so do. The local movie rental places just have never had the amount of classic films to keep up with me. I grew up watching black and white movies and have never stopped loving them. Over the tail end of summer, I rented all the Thin Man movies with William Powell and Myrna Loy:

The actors’ chemistry is really fantastic, and since I read The Maltese Falcon last month, I decided to pick up The Thin Man as well. (Stay tuned for TMF discussion later this month). Initially, I thought I would discuss them together, but they are too different and deserve individual posts. Now, the series of movies were contributed to by Dashiell Hammett, but there is only one The Thin Man novel. Its outward appearance is deceptive. It’s fun, sarcastic, and edgy, but it is still a hard-boiled detective novel.

Nick and Nora Charles have returned to New York City from California over the holidays. Nora is young and wealthy, and Nick has quit the Trans-American Detective Agency to manage her money. Both in the novel and the film, the couple are very much equals. Nick may attempt to shield Nora from some of the action, but she never allows him to and shows Nick up in a couple of scenes by observing those around her. Nick is a very different detective than some of Hammett’s others, but I think it’s partially the time period – this novel takes place during Prohibition. Asta is their pet dog, and everything appears to be cocktails and parties, speakeasies and cab rides. Dashiell Hammett has a way with language, though, and in the first two pages alone, the first-person narrator kills. He describes Dorothy Wynant, the now-grown daughter of a former client as

“small and blonde, and whether you looked at her face or at her body in powder-blue sports clothes, the result was satisfactory “(3).

Dorothy, her brother Gilbert, mother Mimi, and her mother’s new gold-digging husband Christian Jorgensen are back in the city from a stint in Europe in an attempt to find Mimi’s ex-husband Clyde Wynant. A bit the “mad scientist,” everyone agrees Clyde is a wealthy genius without any sense. The Wynant clan, newly broke, is in need of further sustenance from the family patriarch, but no one quite seems to know where the man is. Clyde had hired Nick some years back to represent his interests against a man who says Wynant stole his ideas. Nick, of course, tells Dorothy or “Dorry” that he is new in town himself and hasn’t seen her father for years. Dorry wanders off and when Nora asks if Dorry is his type, Nick’s cutting tongue lashes again, saying he wants “Only you, darling – lanky brunettes with wicked jaws” (5).

However, rather quickly, everyone seems to interrupt Nick’s perpetual happy hour to discuss Clyde Wynant with him because his former lover/secretary Julia Ford has been found murdered in her apartment. Wynant has disappeared, and because of Nick’s timely reappearance, everyone (cops and thugs included) thinks he’s on the case. The cast of characters featuring the Wynant/Jorgensen family, Wynant’s attorney Macaulay, a thug named Morelli, and a couple coppers, all have motives for killing Ms. Ford. Everyone lies. Everyone drinks heavily. And everyone is out for him or herself. The action is helped along by Wynant’s letters, always appearing at opportune moments and sending the cops on another lead. As the lies add up and embroil Nick, Nora looks on with amusement. She likes Nick’s “amusing friends” and finds the action of the novel entertaining right up until she doesn’t.

I won’t delve into the action anymore, as I don’t want to spoil the many twists and turns and sometimes convoluted plot twists. If you stay focused, you can certainly figure out what’s happening, but Hammett throws in enough nonsense from his nonsensical characters to make it difficult for you. Red herrings abound. So why isn’t it a soft-boiled novel? It sounds so light hearted. The thing is, Hammett’s good, very good. He wields his pen lightly but with heavy intent as he addresses topics of mental illness, abuse, alcoholism, murder, and mayhem. The cops don’t seem to care that Nick has alcohol on hand at any given moment, and Nick regales them with tales of speakeasies. They shake down witnesses and use a heavy hand when arresting suspects. The women throw themselves at any  male who can be manipulated, while the men are led quite easily by greed. Behind the sweet, light facade, this tale is rife with revenge, deceit, prejudice (there are a couple racial slurs), and injustice. It’s not pretty, but I don’t think it’s intended to be.

This, though, is where the novel differs from the original The Thin Man movie. The movie plays up the personality of Nick and Nora and enhances the already stellar dialogue. I was honestly really surprised when watching it after all these years at the relationship between the two. Nick and Nora talk their way through each aspect of the case:

“Who is the somebody else?” [Nick]

“I don’t know yet. Now don’t make fun of me: I’ve thought about it a lot. It wouldn’t be Macaulay, because he’s using him to help shield whoever it is and -”

“And it wouldn’t be me,” I suggested, “because he wants to use me.”

“That’s right,” she said, “and you’re going to feel very silly if you make fun of me and then I guess who it is before you do…. Don’t be so damned patronizing. Your performance so far has been a little less than dazzling.”

“I didn’t mean no harm,” I said and kissed her. “That a new dress?”

“Ah! Changing the subject, you coward.” (183).

And although there certainly are some instances of sexism within both the film and the movie, it is refreshing to know that there were at least a couple of movies out there showing marriage/partnerships as they could be. That said, the movie plays down a lot of the domestic abuse in the Wynant family as well as the fact that each character is basically a functioning alcoholic with nothing better to do than trot around town and gossip about so-and-so’s husband out with so-and-so’s wife or mistress. In that aspect, it reminded me a lot of The Great Gatsby and is, as I understand it, indicative of time period. As social commentary goes, this is a great piece – you realize when you like the crooks, ahem, reformed crooks like Studsy better than the main characters, that something is awry. All in all, this was a very quick read with satisfying plot twists and excellent characters. To me, the plot is not as all-consuming as The Maltese Falcon, but it is equally enjoyable. I recommend reading it first and then having a marathon of the movies – they are really fantastic.

*Above is the Vintage Crime edition I have. Isn’t it beautiful? They do an excellent job.

Pages: 201

Publisher: Vintage Crime/Black Lizard

Price: $12.95 (cover)


3 responses to “The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett/film and fiction

  • Marlene

    I have always loved The Thin Man series of movies, and now will most definitely have to pick up a copy of Dashiell’s novel. If you enjoyed The Thin Man novel, I think you should give Agatha Christie’s Tuppence and Tommy series a read. I’ve been a fan of the ‘cozy mystery’ genre for years, and the same type of chemistry that exists in the Thin Man movies, plays out quite nicely between the Tuppence and Tommy Beresford characters in the Christie novels. The two characters are first introduced in ‘Secret Adversary’ where we learn that our two protagonists ‘started out their life as blackmailers (all in search of adventure and money), but the detecting life soon proved more profitable and much more exciting.'(Wikapedia). There are three novels with the further adventures of Tommy and Tuppence, ‘N or M’, ‘By the Pricking of My Thumbs’ and ‘Postern of Fate’. As the series moves forward in time, so do our main characters…aging in ‘real time’ as it were. There is also a collection of short stories with the same two main characters as well. The wit and saucy dialague between the two is quite amusing, and adds a light-heartedness in spite of murder and mayhem abounding within the novel. As with most novels of the genre and time period, there are numerous red-herrings here, too, enough to confound the reader….just as you think you’ve figured out ‘Who Dunnit’! It is enjoyable reading and I highly recommend it.

    • pickygirlfoodfilmfiction

      sounds good. i may just have to check those out. for some reason, i never got into agatha christie when i picked them up years ago. i read a bunch in middle school (can’t remember exactly) but then stopped. you need to go rewatch the movies. i’d really like to own them, they’re that good.

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