“Murder doesn’t round out anybody’s life except the murdered’s and sometimes the murderer’s.”
“That may be,” Nora said, “but it’s all pretty unsatisfactory.”
Former gumshoe Nick Charles and wife Nora have planned a decadent Christmas holiday in New York. Instead, the disappearance of a former client leads them into mayhem. The wisecracks fly as fast as the bullets as the irrepressible Nick and Nora romp from the Ritz bar to the sleaziest speakeasies in search of a killer, without ever missing cocktail hour.
The Thin Man has always stuck out as an unlikely entry in Dashiell Hammett’s short bibliography. A sleuthing-couple comedy set among the eccentric rich? Yet the novel serves up a cocktail with a kick, hinting at the dirt and desperation lurking beneath its sophisticated veneer. It’s high society, but it’s also New York City at the end of Prohibition and the start of the Depression, where debutantes, gangsters, and intellectuals mingle uneasily, aided by plenty of booze. This is Hammett country after all, hollow laughter shot through with nihilism.
Nick Charles gave up his work as a private eye after marrying Nora, who is not only clever and charming, but an heiress to boot. Still, his detective instincts perk up when he is approached by Dorothy Wynant, the daughter of a wealthy former client. Her father Clyde (the “thin man” of the title) left his family for his secretary Julia Wolf years ago, and Dorothy would like to reunite. When Julia is found murdered, Nick must use his old underworld contacts to find Clyde before the police do.
The Wynants are dysfunctional in all the most fashionable ways. Mother Mimi is remarried to a gigolo with a wandering eye. Teenage son Gilbert spouts off the latest Freudian theories. And daughter Dorothy stays out drinking all night to avoid having to return to her abusive home. “They’re all sex crazy,” Nick concludes. “I think it’s backed up into their heads.”
Mimi in particular is a real piece of work, a seething barrel of id who gives rein to her every impulse. Seductive one moment, violent the next, Mimi is compared to “a child with a pack of matches.” Nick thinks she’s even more dangerous than that, not only because of what she does herself, but because of the reactions she inspires in others.
“The chief thing,” I advised them, “is not to let her tire you out. When you catch her in a lie, she admits it and gives you another lie to take its place and, when you catch her in that one, admits it and gives you still another, and so on. Most people—even women—get discouraged after you’ve caught them in the third or fourth straight lie and fall back on either the truth or silence, but not Mimi. She keeps trying and you’ve got to be careful or you’ll find yourself believing her, not because she seems to be telling the truth, but simply because you’re tired of disbelieving her.”
It’s easy to see how The Thin Man spawned a series of classic films—there is so much snappy dialogue that the screenplay would seem to write itself. Interestingly, however, not much of the dialogue from the book actually made it into the movie, so reading The Thin Man is a fresh experience even for those who have seen the film version. (One moment that did make the cut is this classic utterance from fed-up gangster’s moll Miriam: “I don’t like crooks, and even if I did, I wouldn’t like crooks that are stool-pigeons, and if I liked crooks that are stool-pigeons, I still wouldn’t like you.” Words to live by.)
That said, the overall atmosphere of the book is completely different from the sprightliness of the film version. The comedy here is much darker and more ironic, with a more world-weary tone. Despite the breakneck pace, The Thin Man is most effective in its quieter moments: tough guy Arthur Nunheim weeping after Miriam leaves him, Dorothy’s hopeless declaration that you can run away from your family, but “you can’t run away from yourself,” Nick’s glimpse at the tragic life of a woman who married an alcoholic for his money and is determined to stick to her bargain. Hammett also has a lot of fun satirizing the Greenwich Village artistic scene.
Halsey Edge was a tall scrawny man of fifty-something with a pinched yellow face and no hair at all. He called himself “a ghoul by profession and inclination”—his only joke, if that is what it was—by which he meant he was an archæologist, and he was very proud of his collection of battle-axes. He was not so bad once you had resigned yourself to the fact that you were in for occasional catalogings of his armory…It was his wife we objected to. Her name was Leda, but he called her Tip. She was very small and her hair, eyes, and skin, though naturally of different shades, were all muddy. She seldom sat—she perched on things—and liked to cock her head a little to one side. Nora had a theory that once when Edge opened an antique grave, Tip ran out of it, and Margot Innes always spoke of her as the gnome, pronouncing all the letters. She once told me that she did not think any literature of twenty years ago would live, because it had no psychiatry in it. They lived in a pleasant old three-story house on the edge of Greenwich Village and their liquor was excellent.
The dynamic between Nick and Nora is a bit lop-sided. First-person narrator Nick portrays his wife as a dream girl. Nora is a smart, rich, beautiful, and much younger woman who is unfazed by Nick’s flirtations with Dorothy and Mimi. She barely objects to his constant drinking; only once does she suggest, “Why don’t we stay sober today?” when Nick wants a drink before breakfast. “We didn’t come to New York to stay sober,” he scoffs, and that’s that. Nora is thrilled to death at the prospect of solving a mystery, but she barely plays any role in the investigation, which is entirely carried out by Nick.
There’s an especially strange moment when they are being held at gunpoint by a home invader. Inexplicably, Nick knocks Nora unconscious before disarming the man. When she wakes up, she’s not angry that her husband punched her in the face. She’s only annoyed because “I knew you’d take him and I wanted to see it.” Nora sees herself as an equal partner in the investigation, but Nick sees her as a distraction, someone who must be gotten out of the way before he can get down to business. It’s frustrating to see a dynamic character like Nora sidelined for no good reason.
The Thin Man is a savage black comedy of life and death at the intersection of high and low society. It’s a strange little time capsule that is perhaps best read as Hammett’s attempt to graft his brutal worldview onto a high-society comedic mystery. The result works better than it has any right to, though it leaves a bitter taste behind.
Hammett tries to marry two genres, each of which marks a departure from his earlier work: the traditional whodunit, complete with clues and suspects, and the sophisticated comedy of manners. And in that attempt, he doesn’t quite succeed. His outlook was ultimately too grim for either genre—too nihilistic, too full of moral despair. Unlike his prose, his view of what motivates people wasn’t in any way clean.
Those two lines are typical of the book’s tone: light, witty, urbane. If anyone other than Hammett had written it, it would stand as an amusing piece of fluff. But compared to The Dain Curse, The Maltese Falcon, and The Glass Key, it is shallow and gutless.
I didn’t particularly enjoy The Thin Man. It was too dialogue-heavy and complex, too dark and embittered, to make a pleasant read. And it was too insubstantial to make a challenging read. The movie is much more pleasant and a good deal wittier, but there’s one thing I can definitely say for the novel: it makes a Gatsby-esque case for not romanticising the past. The movie is a charming fantasy, but the novel is probably a lot closer to the real thing, and it certainly does a better picture of showing you exactly what kind of person its author really was.
The Thin Man is available in paperback, ebook, and audiobook formats from Vintage Crime/Black Lizard.