Friday, December 28, 2012

Book Review - The Thin Man

The Thin Man was Dashiel Hammet's final novel. It sticks with the familiar hard boiled themes and motifs common in his previous works like the Continental Op series or The Maltese Falcon. There are scenes showcasing the gritty underbella of prohibition era America and the thugs and speakeasies of the time. Where the Thin Man takes a different tack is that our main hero is a "retired" detective Nick Charles. Nick got married 4 years ago to Nora, a rich socialite from the West Coast. When Nora's father died, Nick left detective work behind and has taken on some responsibility for overseeing the businesses. Granted, his level of "oversight" seems to involve hobnobbing, spending money and doing a lot of drinking.

The novel is set during Christmastime in New York City. Nick and Nora are enjoying a luxurious vacation when Nick runs into Dorothy, the daughter of a family he did detective work for years ago. Her father, Wynant is missing and she wants Nick to help find him. Nick says he's retired and gives her some ideas of who she might call. A bit later it is revealed that Wynant's secretary has been found murdered.

Wynant's family members and associates keep turning up asking Nick to help find Wynant. The police also try to rope him into helping them solve the murder. More and more details are revealed and more suspects keep turning up. One of the suspects ends up shooting Nick and Nick decides he can't stay out of the investigation any more and starts gumshoeing. He still tries to defer to the police where he can and keep the press at bay as they try to get him to admit to working the case.

Nora is enthralled with seeing her husband work and she keeps trying to push herself into the action alongside him. I love the banter between Nick and Nora. They are both so witty and sarcastic. It's a lot of fun to see them tease each other and especially fun when they're teasing in front of other characters or teasing other people. A lot of the other characters don't seem to know what to make of the Charleses. It's pretty funny.

While this is still a gritty murder mystery full of all sorts of suspects both from high and low society, it is definitely less grizzly than the Continental Op. There were action sequences but they weren't as intense or drawn out as in Hammet's other works. The tone and action was closer to Maltese Falcon than the Op books.

I really enjoyed the mystery of this book. There are a ton of little nuances and extra layers that add to the complexity. While some of the characters felt a little flat and stereotypical there were also a lot of very distinctive and interesting characters. Wynant's family members are each very outrageously distinct and quirky. Wyant's lawyer and business associates are a little more predictable but still interesting and add flavor.

As with a lot of these early mystery novels, the final revelatory narrative is a bit drawn out with Nick going into a lengthy monologue explaining just what happened and how and by whom. I did like the humor that Hammet brought into this scene through short comments between Nick and Nora as she questions just how it is that he knows these things. In some cases his response is that "it's the only way that makes sense" other cases he comments that he's "not sure" but he suggests that by making deductive theories in one direction, it's sure to put pressure on the real guilty party and expose something they don't want exposed.

All in all I really enjoyed this story. It was a funny, exciting and intriguing mystery tale. While the overall mystery elements were all actually pretty complex in their unraveling, the actualy resolution was quite simple and seemed to make a lot of sense once fully explained. In the end this made for a rather satisfying conclusion.

After reading the book, I sat down with my wife and we watched the movie based on the book. I loved that Dashiel Hammet received top billing. The movie was pretty faithful to the overall plot of the book although it did start out providing significant back story prior to the introduction of the Charleses. This served as a good introduction to Wynant and his family and associates. I felt like this change was a good way of putting a face to a character (Wynant) who otherwise is almost always "off screen" but constantly talked about. They did make a significant change to the "Dorothy" character. In the book she's flighty, erratic and just possibly a little crazy. In the movie she seemed pretty grounded and she's engaged to be married (which introduced a new character but also got rid of her "flirting" with Nick). Most of the other characters and situations remained the same until the very end of the story. Rather than having the final revelation meeting happen in the room of Wynant's wife and family, Nick sets up a dinner party and invites all of the suspects to attend. During the dinner he announces that he's brought the killer in and expects to reveal him or her there. The dinner party scene certainly made for better theater by adding more tension and suspicion as well as providing more opportunity for situational humor.

Overall I really enjoyed this book. I've had a lot of fun reading Hammet's works and I look forward to reading more. If you're in the mood for a "Noir" mystery without as much grittiness but with just as much intrigue and fun, The Thin Man is definitely a good place to start.

4.5 out of 5 stars

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1 comment:

Brian Miller said...

nice..high rating...will have to try the book movie combo as well....enjoy a good mystery and its been a while since i read a good one...hope your holidays are going well with the fam...