Thursday, April 28, 2011

Book Review -- THE THIN MAN by Dashiell Hammett

A thick web of lies and deceit. Bullet-riddled corpses. Mobsters knocking on one's door, packing heat. Police suspicion. A fortune in cash and bonds. Dope fiends and morphine addiction. Hysterical women and cunning femme-fatales.

Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man delivers, but not with the intense excitement and high-stakes of some of his other work, like The Maltese Falcon. (This, however, should come as no surprise, once the reader realizes that it was first published in 1934 as a serial in women's magazine Redbook--yes, that Redbook.) Although many of the female characters are conniving, treacherous, and often downright stupid and hysterical, Hammett provides a female character that is clever, trustworthy, and supportive of the main character--Nora Charles. This is a sharp divorce from the typical misogyny that runs through much of hardboiled detective tales. Indeed, the film version of The Thin Man is distinctively not very much film noir, and is actually quite lighthearted.

Greek American Nick Charles (an Ellis Island immigration officer changed the name from Charalambides), his wife Nora, and their schnauzer Asta, are in New York celebrating Christmas and New Years away from their company in San Francisco. Nick had once been a private detective before he joined Nora and went into business. Nora's keenly interested in Nick's past as a detective, and when one of his former clients turns up missing while the secretary is dead with four bullets in her, she gets her chance to experience a bit of the romance and adventure Nick used to inhabit. The couple was famously portrayed in 1934's film version of the novel by William Powell and Myrna Loy (notice below the dog is not a schnauzer), and in five subsequent films and a TV series that ultimately had nothing to do with Dashiell Hammett's books except the title.

The women actually make this book, and it is not surprising since the novel was written for (and serialized in) a women's magazine. Dorothy Wynant is a young airhead prone to hysteria and gratuitous overreaction. Her mother Mimi (ex-wife to the missing client) is vengeful, conniving, manipulative, and very much used to getting her way. Together, they do not provide a very positive portrait of women. However, Nora Charles, Nick's wife, is actually very much different from they, and are likely the primary character the female audience is supposed to identify with (despite the fact that the novel is written in first person from Nick's perspective).

Nora is problematic in that she's not an incredibly deep or incredible character. She's there, she's very prominent, and she has a very strong personality, but her weakness is that despite her strength, she's ill-defined. She's actually quite generic. She's smart--she helps Nick a few times by observing things that completely escaped his notice, teases him for being a lousy detective on occasion, and comes up with a list of suspects an motives. But her smarts aren't sharp. Of course, she lacks the experience that Nick has, and willingly takes a back-seat when he is doing his detective work. But in the end, she's just a glorified secretary. She doesn't play a pivotal role in Nick's solving of the crime. She's simply a pillar that holds him up. Nora complements him quite well, and they work very well together as a team. However, she doesn't really bring any special skills or abilities with her that Nick lacks save those traits a woman naturally has.

The book, however, is part of its time-period. I can honestly forgive its treatment of Nora. It isn't really chauvinistic, since Nora is definitely portrayed as a person of strength, resourcefulness, intelligence, and capability. One gets the impression that her and Nick are very much equal partners in both their business and their marriage. But the centerpiece of the book is not the business or the marriage--it is the mystery, and that's where Nick dominates the narrative and Nora recedes. She's still there, but she's a pace or two behind Nick. This isn't surprising. A powerful and dominant female detective would have been just as implausible to a 1930s housewife as it would have been to her husband.

The mystery itself is pretty convoluted. Hammett keeps the reader guessing through the immense web of deception that all of the women (except Nora) weave throughout the novel--including the deceptions of the deceased secretary (it seems that every female in the novel is a born liar).
"The chief thing," I advised them, "is not to let her tire you out. When you catch her in a lie, she admits it and gives you another lie to take its place and, when you catch her in that one, she admits it and gives you still another, and so on. Most people--even women--get discouraged after you've caught them in the third or fourth straight lie and fall back on either the truth or silence, but not Mimi. She keeps trying and you've got to be carefull or you'll find yourself believing her, not because she seems to be telling the truth, but simply because you're tired of disbelieving her."
Nick's character handles it with the adeptness, cynicism, and sarcasm of any early 20th-century gumshoe. His dialogue is dry and witty, and although he was played by William Powell in the 1934 film (and subsequent movie series), I couldn't help but imagine Nick as Humphrey Bogart.

The prose is nothing to write home about. Hammett writes in this clear, matter-of-fact style, but sometimes he lets some dry wit slip from his pen.
Morelli hit the fat man in his fat belly, as hard as he could without getting up. Studsy, suddenly on his feet, leaned over Morelli and smashed a big fist into the fat man's face. I noticed, foolishly, that he still led with his right. Hunchbacked Pete came up behind the fat man and banged his empty tray down with full force on the fat man's head. The fat man fell back, upsetting three people and a table. Both bar-tenders were with us by then. One of them hit the fat man with a blackjack as he tried to get up, knocking him forward on his hands and knees, the other put a hand down inside the fat man's collar in back, twisting the collar to choke him. With Morelli's help they got the fat man to his feet and hustled him out.
In case you didn't notice, the fat man is fat. That's an example of how Hammett's arid humor emerges through deadpan prose. You have to be paying attention to catch it, but when you do, it's hard not to cock a smirk in amusement.

The Thin Man was Hammett's final novel. I've only read 1930's The Maltese Falcon and found it to be far darker, cynical, and despairing of human nature than The Thin Man. The latter novel is much more uplifting and the tone is overall hopeful. Nick and Nora Charles are never really in any serious danger of being accused, arrested, or separated. The dramatic tension increases only slightly when the police briefly suspect Nick. There's not much truly at stake throughout the novel for Nick and Nora, with the exception of their vacation plans. As a result, the tension throughout the novel is really sustained through simple curiosity and Nick's natural desire to clean up a mess (which occasionally wars with his desire to simply go back to San Francisco and not be bothered).

With so little at stake, its not surprising that, although a delightful little mystery, I find it has less in common with Hammett's earlier The Maltese Falcon or Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep, and more in common with one of Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple stories. It's not a bad novel, but it certainly doesn't pack the nihilistic punch that a hardboiled noir mystery would. And here I reveal my bias--far and away, I prefer the sort of fiction that punches me in the gut. I enjoyed The Thin Man, but there was never any point in the book where I sat up and felt like Hammett was really nailing something about human nature or the human condition like he did with the end of The Maltese Falcon, where Spade tells O'Shaughnessy that he can't trust her and sends her off to prison. I guess my bias is toward the more painful and negative aspects of the human condition. I don't recall ever reading great literature and noticing a recurring theme of happiness and good times.

The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett
Style B
Substance B-
Overall B-


Badmike said...

Try "The Glass Key" by Hammett, I think you'd enjoy that much more. A lot more traditionally hard boiled and cynical.

Have you ever read Paul Cain's "Fast One"? Possibly the greatest hard boiled crime novel of all time, if you like nihilistic noir this one is for you. If you like punch in the gut fiction, well, I won't spoil this one for you. An absolute masterpiece of the genre!

Dave Cesarano said...

So far, James Ellroy is probably the best hardboiled noir writer I've read. Total despair and nihilism. I love that stuff in my detective books. I'm not as much a fan of it in my fantasy novels, though. Call me a hypocrite.

Definitely want to check out The Glass Key as well as Red Harvest. Heard of Paul Cain, but never read him. I'll add him to the "to read" list.

Zarg Hardwaggon said...

Yes, after reading The Big Sleep and the Thin Man almost back-to-back, I can honestly say I think Chandler was better.

Dave Corbett-Kelsall said...

Chandler was better, but in a different way. His prose approached poetry, but his stories tended to ramble; he admitted that he himself didn't know where they were going sometimes. Hammett's prose is lean, spare. I was stunned by just how brutal Red Harvest was. Certain passages were stripped of all adornment, leaving behind nothing but violence.

Dave Cesarano said...

I haven't read Red Harvest, yet, though I've seen Kurosawa's Yojimbo which was based upon it. Your observations are actually pretty good. I can see what you mean when you say Chandler rambled a lot. In a way, I think that adds to the charm of the era. Hammett's plots are much tighter. Chandler said, "whenever the action lulls, have a guy kick in the door with a gun." This happens about half a dozen times in The Big Sleep alone, showing that Chandler wasn't certain what to do next so he went to his old standby to get the action moving again.

Armando E. Torre Puerto said...

I just read it.

I have a different view of women in this book. Why would Nora have to be a sharp detective? Affirmative action doesn't make a read good or bad, and if done in an unlikely way it might ruin the experience. The book is about a retired detective living a fun life with his lover, just like Hammett, who isn't required to do a lady detective to be considered good.

As for the women being unfairly portrayed, there was a male equivalent for every bad or good one. Mimi can be matched by Chris (and topped by the killer), Julia is just as bad as Morelly, Nora just as good and smart as Nick, and Dorry is by far the most innocent Wynant. Dorry is a good girl trapped in a horrible family, and Nick says as much. She is the damsel in distress, but despite her lack of maturity, she is the Wynant that trusts the right people and does the right thing. We should think about the result of her move to involve Nick and Nora and contrast that with the way his odd brother handled things.

I've been looking for information on themes, allegories and symbolism in The Thin Man, and I've got little so far. As far as I can tell, the main theme of the book is that people can't be helped. The Charles have a good life by being moderated hedonists (they party, but being a couple comes first) and sharing their good lifestyle with people ("Oh, Nick. I love you because you know such lovely people" — drunks), but Nick has the rule of not getting involved in their affairs as he sees it useless. They are hospitable but unattached. Nora insists on Nick getting involved with the Wynants again, and he does so against his wishes. Some good comes out of it, but Nick might have lost his life, and in the end, good people remain good, bad people bad.

This theme is changed in the movie with the addition of Dorry's fiance. Even if the principle is still there the result is perceived differently.