Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Thin Man (1933)

Being almost completely unfamiliar with the old Nick and Nora Charles movies, I came to The Thin Man with no preconceived notions about its two main characters and how they might fit into the rest of Hammett’s body of work. At first, the book did not strike me as being particularly dark or hardboiled, two qualities I have come to expect from Hammett’s writing, but by the time I finished it I had changed my mind. As Hammett developed his storyline and fleshed out his characters it became apparent that the more sophisticated Nick and Nora were dealing with characters from the criminal underworld and the NYPD who would have fit comfortably into any Hammett novel.

Ex-detective Nick Charles and his wealthy young wife have come from San Francisco to spend Christmas 1932 in New York City, a city with which Nick is very familiar and in which he still has many friends and contacts because of the years he worked it as a private detective. Nick, retired from the business and hoping to earn his keep these days by managing the enormous wealth that his new wife has inherited, wants nothing more from the holiday than a chance to visit old haunts, see a few friends, drink some good booze on a regular basis and sleep until noon each day.

A chance encounter with the daughter of a former client of his who wants him to help her find her father makes sure that most of Nick’s original holiday goals will be impossible to achieve because, try as he might to avoid any involvement, he is slowly sucked into a mess beyond his imagination. Before he knows what hit him, Nick is working with a NYPD detective on a murder investigation, becomes the target of one of the murder suspects, finds that the wife of another suspect is trying to frame him for the murder, realizes that he and Nora have become surrogate parents to the young lady who first got him involved, and is still trying to squeeze in as much booze as possible into his daily routine.

The Thin Man was Dashiell Hammett’s last novel and I had hoped to enjoy it much more than I did. Strangely enough, what will stay with me the longest is the alcoholism that the novel’s main character, Nick Charles, so obviously suffers, suffers to such a degree that he is constantly joking about his need for a drink and offering drinks to others so that he will have an excuse to mix one for himself. In fact, his young wife Nora, if she stays with Nick too many years, is almost certainly going to end up in the same boat. Hammett, an alcoholic himself, portrays these drinking habits as humorous and sophisticated, very much a positive thing in the lives of Nick and Nora Charles. I found that attitude, along with some casual use of the “N-word” to be distracting enough to keep me from fully buying into the novel’s plot. I realize that the book was written at least 75 years ago but I struggled to get past this kind of thing, especially Hammett’s attempt to make alcoholism seem so appealing a lifestyle.

I listened to the audio version of the book and I was impressed with the way that William Dufris read the novel. The Thin Man is largely a first person narrative by Nick Charles with the remainder of the book being told in conversational format. Dufris does a superb job providing accents, inflections and different voices for the various characters, male and female, and made listening to Hammett’s story a pleasure but, overall, I was disappointed in the book. Based on its reputation, I think that I expected too much.

Rated at: 3.0


  1. The same thing (alcoholism) jumped out at me in Travels With Charley. Same sort of behavior, not to mention that he stocked Rocinante's liquor cabinet very soon after he and his wife said goodbye in New York.

  2. Oh, I just saw you're currently reading that Nolan Porterfield book about Jimmie Rodgers. I'm so jealous! That's been on my wishlist for over a year now.

  3. Isn't it jarring when the mores of the current day clash with the past? I find the sexism and racism of the 50's really off putting in some of books from that era.

    The attitude towards alcohol has really changed, even from the 70's. I really should pick up the Thin Man books though, I've only seen the movies.

  4. I really try to keep "the times" in mind when I read a book, Bybee, but some things just become too distracting for me to keep them in context. This was one of those times.

    Hey, that Porterfield bio of Jimmie Rodgers is much detail and day-to-day stuff in there that I am having to mark lots of pages so that I can refer back to them when I write my impressions of the book. Jimmie's story is a truly tragic one - but not quite the one that I expected. I'll save the details for my review...about 120 pages to go yet.

  5. Carrie, despite the series of movies about Nick and Nora, this is the only "Thin Man" novel that Hammett actually wrote, I think. It was his last novel, in fact.

    I know what you mean about things being more than a little to today's "ear"...this is a perfect example.