Jun 172013

“Let’s stick around awhile. This excitement has put us behind in our drinking.”

That assessment of the situation really isn’t too surprising. It came from Nick Charles, former private detective, now married to Nora Charles and – we are told – managing her financial affairs in lieu of actually working. Both of the Charleses certainly seem to have no difficulty putting away their share of near-the-end-of-Prohibition liquor.

But, alas, the course of true drinking never did run smooth, as William Shakespeare probably would have said had he known Nick Charles. So when a young woman asks Nick to help look for her missing father – who may have murdered his lover – Nick is more-or-less forced into helping. I mean, everybody seems to think that he’s involved…the daughter, her peculiar brother, the missing man’s ex-wife, the lawyer, the cops, the gangsters…so what choice does he have?

Welcome to the world of Dashiell Hammett in The Thin Man, Hammett’s last novel and one that, along with his other novels and short stories, helped to define the American hard-boiled mystery story for generations to come. The Thin Man is the subject of this week’s audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to the entire review by clicking here.

the missing man is named Clyde Wynant, a scientist who may be working on something for the government. He also may have murdered his secretary, who is also his mistress. Despite his protests, Nick is drawn into the case, winds up getting himself wounded in a confrontation with a small-time gangster, more-or-less helps the police, and so forth. There are a number of murders, of course, before Nick comes up with the genuinely surprising solution. It’s what you would expect from a top-of-the-line American Private Eye novel, and it is so well written, with so much genuinely funny dialogue and oddball situations, that it really set the standard for this kind of American detective fiction.

I have to agree with Raymond Chandler, generally regarded as Hammett’s successor in shaping the American mystery story, who said of Hammett, “Hammett was the ace performer… He was spare, frugal, hard-boiled, but he did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before.”

The Thin Man was made into a movie starring William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles. Though Hammett never wrote another book about Nick and Nora, the movie spawned a number of sequels. The movie dialogue and situations are generally light and very funny. A lot of the humor is present in the book as well, but the overall tone, I think, is darker, more noir-ish than the movies. If you haven’t read The Thin Man yet, you’re missing a real treat.

Here’s another early mystery classic that qualifies for the Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge under way at the My Reader’s Block blog. As others participating in the challenge had already reviewed The Thin Man, I am putting it in the category, “Somebody Else’s Crime.” If you aren’t checking the challenge results, you’re missing a potential treat – last time I looked, there are links from the challenge to nearly 200 reviews of classic, pre-1960 mysteries. I’ll bet you’d find some there to enjoy!

The Case of the Thin Man and the Soft Opening

 dialogue, first page critique, openings, The Thin Man  Comments Off on The Case of the Thin Man and the Soft Opening
May 062012

Here is today’s first page:
The thin man bent down and scooped up a handful of burnt red sand from a beach that no longer existed. He let the coarse bits spill from his palm and into a small glass vial, a calm smile spreading across his wrinkled face.
The man crouched in silence as he capped the vial, looking out over the horizon of the Galapagos archipelago as the sun set across them, orange tendrils stretching out between the clouds.
“It’s hard to believe that such a magnificent place as this is now virtually wiped off the face of the earth,” he said, still looking out into the distance.
He spun around a moment later when no reply came, cocking his head to the side. “Don’t you think, Agent Ward?”
Agent Eli Ward turned his attention toward the man and nodded in agreement. “Certainly,” he replied, tugging at the neck of his stuffy crimson uniform. Though it was near sunset and the air smelled of oncoming rain, the weather was muggy.
“That it is…” the man pondered, inserting the vial into a round slot in the large metal box beside him. The box held several other vials, all filled with different sorts of minerals. “Things sure are different  in our day and age, aren’t they? Not as simple anymore.”
Eli withheld his reply and glanced at the device on his wrist, tapping at its glowing display. It was slightly larger than a deck of cards, secured to him with an elastic band. “Dr. Vanderbilt, we’re on a tight schedule, I must insist…”
“Yes, I know, I know,” Vanderbilt replied in disappointment. He pushed himself to a stand, closing the lid on his collection of vials. He lugged the box up with a small grunt and came alongside Eli.
Eli tapped the display a couple times more. “Alright,” he said. “I think we’re ready. Let me see yours.”
Vanderbilt held his arm out to Eli, who took it. The device on Vanderbilt’s wrist was smaller than that of Eli’s, about the size of a digital watch. Since it received commands remotely from Eli’s device . . .
We start off without knowing who Vanderbilt is. He is called “The thin man” (a designation that should be reserved only for William Powell). But Vanderbilt’s identity is revealed a few paragraphs in. So why is it kept a mystery for six paragraphs? There’s no need for this.
Unless you want to create an ongoing mystery about who someone is, use their name up front. This is especially crucial for this piece, because we are not in a close POV. We are looking at this scene through objective and distant lenses. It would be much better if we were deep inside either Vanderbilt’s or Eli’s head throughout.
But I’m confused as to who the main character is supposed to be. The first four paragraphs make it seem this scene belongs to “the thin man.” But since he would not think of himself as “the thin man,” we’re either in an omniscient POV or with another character.
The only other character is Eli. But since he was not paying attention to the thin man, he can’t have observed what was going on in the first four paragraphs.
We are therefore in omniscient POV by default. Omniscient POV is not much in style anymore, save for epic length historical or speculative fiction. In what I am assuming is a thriller, it’s virtually non-existent. For good reason: Readers of a thriller get invested in it in direct proportion to their care for a character in trouble.
Every time a reader starts a novel, he’s asking (subconsciously) Who am I supposed to follow? And why?
We don’t get answers to those questions here.
This is also what I call a “Here we are in sunny Spain” opening. That is, it feels as if it’s mainly for set-up. Information is being given to us unnaturally. For example, this bit of dialogue:
“It’s hard to believe that such a magnificent place as this is now virtually wiped off the face of the earth”
This doesn’t sound like what the characters would really say to each other. It’s the kind of thing each character already knows. Dialogue such as this is the author feeding information to the reader, and true characterization suffers.
So here are my suggestions:
1. Whoever is the main character in this scene, use close 3d Person POV throughout. Everything from inside that one character’s head.
2. Cut these two lines of dialogue and adjust accordingly:
“It’s hard to believe that such a magnificent place as this is now virtually wiped off the face of the earth”
“Things sure are different  in our day and age, aren’t they? Not as simple anymore.”
Other thoughts?
Pretty good is no longer good enough, whether one wants to be published traditionally or make a buck self-publishing. For writers interested in a 2 day intensive workshop designed to get your fiction to the next level and beyond, I’m coming to Austin, Nashville and Cincinnati this year. Details may be found here