Dashing through Hammett

One of the books I picked up on my recent visit to a Suffolk book orphanage (second-hand bookshop for non-bookhounds) was a copy of Dashiell Hammett's The thin man. I've only read one or two other Hammetts, and at £1.50, how could I resist one of his most famous titles?

The novel revolves around Nick Charles, former gumshoe, now married to the wealthy Norah. Nick and Norah are in New York for a brief break from their home in San Francisco. The couple are embracing the high life and booze galore. Not that surprising really, as the novel was published in 1934 (weirdly my copy gives the original date of publication as 1932), and opens with a rather inebriated run-up to Christmas just post-Prohibition.

Trouble starts for the happy couple when Nick runs into a contact from a previous case. It appears that Wynant, a wealthy inventor, has vanished following the murder of his mistress; but with Wynant's nutty family to deal with, it's not clear who's telling the truth, especially as he's not the only person with a motive for Julia Wolf's murder. As the body count and police brutality rises, can Nick find the killer, and avoid becoming the next victim?

The novel made such an impact that film rights were swiftly secured, and the film was released the same year. That proved to be so popular that there then followed a long "Thin Man" sequence. I've always loved the Thin Man film sequence, and find it completely impossible to imagine Nick and Norah Charles as looking like anyone but William Powell and Myrna Loy; and of course there's a dog featured in the action, so how could I not love it?

Perhaps it was my mood, but I actually found the book surprisingly hard to get into. It's extraordinarily fast paced. There's so much dialogue, and wise-cracking that it reads more like a movie script than a novel. And I spent quite a bit of time thumbing my way back through the book to re-visit who had said what to who and when, and who exactly is this character, anyway? It was all a bit frustrating as I kept, quite literally, losing the plot.

And yet, it is an extraordinarily good story. The plotting is brilliant, the dialogue is often remarkably up-to-date, it's sexy and funny, and incredibly open in a way that most novels wouldn't be for another 30+ years. Besides the aforementioned police brutality, there's adultery, what could be construed as an incestuous relationship, drugs and booze. I can only think that Hammett got away with it, partly because it is such a comic novel, and probably partly because it was seen as being a cheap "pot-boiler". Hammett's no pot-boiler though, his writing is clever, sassy stuff. Very different in style from his fellow gumshoe novelist, Raymond Chandler, but you can see the relationship between them. Chandler's world is dark, brooding and menacing; Hammett's world is equally dark but shot through with a rueful comedy that triumphs however dark the underlying storyline. I think it's because of this that Thin Man feels less realistic, unlike Hammett's later novel The Maltese Falcon where the balance is definitely weighted more towards the dark side.

If Nick is the overly intelligent, but benign and comical, leading man; Norah is a real breath of fresh air, the type of emancipated female character that a lot of women would probably have liked to be but couldn't embrace truly till the 1970s. This may be because Hammett's long-term mistress was the screenwriter, Lillian Hellmann (to whom Thin Man is dedicated), as independent a woman as you could hope to meet, albeit a somewhat controversial figure.

It's a gloriously funny romp of a crime read, the speed of dialogue does sometimes give it a rather hallucinatory, drunken edge, which, I suspect, was exactly what Hammett was aiming for. Prepare to be dazzled.


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