The Thin Man—Dashiell Hammett-1933-IP
Some may say, well, hell, this books is a given, of course it belongs on the list. But are they thinking of the written word, or the iconic film starring William Powell and Myrna Loy? Is there a huge difference between the two? I’d say, no, not a huge difference, but differences there are. It’s hard to look at title such as this one and imagine how a reader would see it sans the imitators and film adaptations. Hammett’s imagination brought forth the sparkling upper class couple whose life seems full of drink, parties, and more drink. Written from Nick Charles’ point of view, the sentences are crisp, quick and easy going. The plot starts out within the first paragraph as a young lady approaches Charles at a NY hotel bar, while he’s waiting for his rich wife Nora, to return from shopping. The ‘thin’ man of the title is not Nick Charles, as many have believed, but the victim, or one of them. The young lady’s father is missing, his secretary and lover is found dead, and Nick insists he’s not been a detective since his wife’s father died and all those millions needed looking after.
Asta, the famous dog of the series is indeed part of the plot, but a completely different breed. The dialog is quick paced, and witty but Nick isn’t nearly as lightweight as the adaptations present. He may drink, but his overall demeanor is sharp, steady, and serious. Hammett discusses taboo topics such as morphine, and cocaine use, things the films would never touch.
So many other writers have tried to capture the magic Nick and Nora have within these pages, but none can do it. The Mr. and Mrs. North series by Frances and Richard Lockridge are an example. It’s as if they lifted the characters right off Hammett’s page, and thinly disguised them with new names and a cat instead of a dog. That being the case, some of the stories they wrote were quite good, including one I added to my list, Murder Within Murder. But, the special connection of the Charles’ is difficult to match. Television has attempted to attain their wit and class in endless programs–‘Moonlighting’, with Cybil Shepard and Bruce Willis is a prime example–the fastest dialog they could speak, doesn’t compare with
the intelligence with which Hammett wrote. Recently, the most obvious attempt would be ‘Castle’, involving a crime fiction writer and a female police detective–again, the banter they engage in is a ghost of the original. But without Hammett’s classic, I can’t imagine how dull most fictional couples would be.
Hammett dedicated The Thin Man to his then new lover, playwright Lillian Hellman, and never wrote again. Even Hellman hasn’t a definitive reason why this was so, other than he was constantly ill, and became more so as time went on. He was a politically active individual, patriotic to have served in both world wars, and yet the Communist witch hunters went after him anyway, forcing him to testify, and when he refused to discuss others’ actions and beliefs, they threw him in prison. Which only accelerated his tuberculosis and other ailments. Lilian Hellman was with him until the end, and in his last years the pretense of writing wasn’t even attempted by Hammett.
Hammett has become in the crime fiction world, an icon, the father of hard-boiled detective, despite his output being quite small. The Thin Man isn’t the toughest crime novel written. It isn’t the most surprising in it’s denouement either. What The Thin Man provides is a realistic fantasy. Realistic prose, situations, and crime, fantastical romantic couple and dog. An irresistible combination.