“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!