Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Thin Man

The people who lie the most are nearly always the clumsiest at it, and they're easier to fool with lies than most people, too. You'd think they'd be on the look-out for lies, but they seem to be the very ones that will believe almost anything at all.

When it comes to hard-boiled, no-nonsense detective stories there is perhaps no one who does it quite like Dashiell Hammett.  Drawing on his experience as a Pinkerton operative, Hammett would go on to create such enduring characters like Sam Spade from The Maltese Falcon and the Continental Op from Red Harvest and the Dain Curse.  But perhaps his most memorable characters were the husband/wife duo of Nick and Nora Charles found in his final novel, The Thin Man.

The Plot:

 Nick Charles is the son of a Greek immigrant and a former private detective.  After marrying wealthy socialite Nora, he gives up his practice and lives the high life bouncing back in forth between gorgeous hotels and forbidden speakeasies.  In New York, he finds himself unwillingly drawn into a case involving a former acquaintance named Clyde Wynant.  Wynant has disappeared without a trace and there are many reasons that his grotesque family, various policemen, and crooked low-lifes are trying so hard to find him.  Nick and Nora must find a way to see past the lies, the fake motives, and the alcohol to find the truth.

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

I decided to read this book after seeing the wonderful 1934 film starring William Powell and Myrna Loy and though the tone of the film is somewhat lighter, this was still an interesting read.

The best thing about this story (as in the film) is Nick and Nora themselves.  Their relationship is boozy, irreverent, and witty.  Their sharp repartee is very fun and refreshing.  They seem to embody the spirit of the Roaring 20s itself; flippant, smart, glittering, and alcoholic.  I also love how Nora throws herself into Nick's old world of seedy speakeasies, murderous villains, and dangerous women.  Though she comes from a life of privilege, she is game for anything.  In my mind, it is Nick and Nora who set this story apart from the other gritty detective stories of the time.

This story is more than a mystery as it also becomes a comedy of manners with it's bizarre cast of characters.  Though there is a mystery going on, we don't seem to be as concerned about that as we are the people involved.  Their various motives and idiosyncrasies give the story a somewhat grotesque humor.  Having said that, it isn't as much fun to read a mystery novel that isn't too concerned about the mystery.  While the characters were interesting in their own way, I wouldn't say it is the best mystery I've ever read.

While it has its fun moments and is a good example of the hard-boiled detective novel, this is one of those rare occasions where I would say, "Read it if you have time, but you'll enjoy the movie more".

The Movie:

This story was the beginning of the incredibly popular "Thin Man" series of films starring William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick & Nora Charles.  Powell and Loy are fantastic together and they take the story to a new level of fun.  What is so nice about this film is that it is one of the early examples of a married couple who are flippant and sexy.  This film was so popular that it spawned 5 sequels (even though Hammett only wrote the one story) and was nominated for Best Picture at the 1934 Academy Awards.  Be sure to watch it.       

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