Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett

I first discovered the The Thin Man movies (1934-1947) starring William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles when I was a teenager. They are a mix of detective "who-donit" and comedy with witty dialog and charming chemistry between Powell and Loy. Until recently I had no idea these movies were initially inspired by a book.

Published in 1934, The Thin Man is Dashiell Hammett’s final novel. In the novel, former private detective Nick Charles and his wife Nora, have come to New York City to spend Christmas. While there they get pulled into a murder investigation involving one of Nick’s former employer, Clyde Wynant and his lawyer, ex-wife, and family. To complicate matters Wynant, the key suspect, has skipped town. Throughout the story as Nick and Nor try to discern the truth and solve the murder, the reader is introduced to a variety of characters, mostly the “lowlife” of the city who spend their nights moving from one speakeasy to another.

As mentioned above, I had seen The Thin Man movie years ago, so I was fairly acquainted with Nick and Nora Charles, though I remembered nothing of the plot or ending. What really surprised me, a book lover, was how much better I liked the movie adaptation. Between the two the story plot remains the same, but the details differ. The book is much grimmer. Case in point, the son, Gilbert Wynant and his morbid interest in topics like cannibalism... but more on that later.

Literaries consider Dasheill Hammett one of the greatest authors of "hard boiled" detective fiction. Hard boiled is defined as a literary style that portrays crime, violence, sex in an unsentimental light. I think another word might be "raw."

It is believed that Hammett drew many of his ideas for stories from his personal experiences while working as a private detective before World War II. It wasn't until after the War that Hammett retired from solving crime and began to write about it. His total works include six detective novels and numerous short stories of crime and mystery. His most famous works include The Thin Man and The Maltese Falcon. Both are listed on the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list and the latter, which was also adapted to film starring Humphrey Bogart, and was called one the greatest movie of all times by movie critic Roger Ebert.

To some degree I can see why people laud The Thin Man as a great book. Hammett's writing style is unique, the story is fast paced and interesting, and as a mystery it is a tight and clever story. But in the end I just didn't like it.

To start with, for the first ten chapters I found the prose choppy and difficult to follow. But then, either I got used to it, or Hammett's writing improved, because after Chapter 10 I stopped noticing it.

As for content, there is much that could be considered "objectionable" by readers. First, the language rates strong into the moderate range. Second, although set during prohibition, alcohol is very prominent in the story. In fact, it wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that in every scene the characters were downing some form of alcohol, pouring a cocktail and about to drink, or had just finished multiple drinks. It's a wonder that Nick isn't in a perpetual state of drunkenness for the entire story. Third, the violence ranges from mild to moderate. The murders in the books aren't too descriptive, particularly in comparison with today's standards and fall onto the mild end of the scale. It is the four page story about cannibalism in the United States, that Wynant's son Gilbert reads that pushes the violence into the moderate zone. Why Hammett felt this part was important to the story plot I'll never know, but I can say this -- a reader of The Thin Man is safe skipping these four pages without losing anything valuable from the plot. Overall for a 1930s novel there isn't much detail on any of these objections, but it is very evident for those who have seen the movie adaptations that the Hollywood censors did clean up the story.

I realize not everyone will agree with me, and perhaps it is not very literary of me, but in my opinion if you want to enjoy The Thin Man skip the book and watch the movies. On a scale of one to five, one being horrible and five being excellent I'd have to rate this novel a 1 to a 1.5. However, if you are curious and want to read the book, borrow don't buy it.

Because I did find Hammett's writing style unique I may give him another try and read The Maltese Falcon, but it won't be any time soon. I'm just not the "hard boiled" reading type.


Lindsey said...

I'm glad you wrote about this! My husband and I love The Thin Man movies. I was wondering about the book and now I know we wouldn't enjoy it as much. William Powell makes a great detective, doesn't he? I also read Myrna Loy's autobiography and it was very interesting.

Have you seen all the Thin Man movies? We have the set on DVD - there are five I think. They're all great!

J said...

The Thin Man and several of the sequels were some of my favorites as a kid. I never guessed that they were based on a book.

From what I remember, the alcohol was certainly kept as part of the movies, though Powell made a delightfully lovable borderline lush.

I think the humorous style of the movies are more along my preference too, from what it sounds like. Though who knows, if a different screenwriter/director had gotten the Thin Man, we might have wound up with another Maltese Falcon quality movie.

Carrie said...

I've never seen the movies but have heard a lot about Nick and Nora. I've been curious. I didn't realize it was based on a book. I think, based on your recommendation, I won't bother trying to find the book and I'll probably - at some point - take some time out to watch the movies!

Great review. Thanks!

Sherry said...

I think I'd like to see these movies. I have seen THe Maltese Falcon, and it's great. I also read The Maltese Falcon a long time ago, and I don't remember anything objectionable about it. But I would get tired of all the drinking, and the cannibalism essay just sounds icky.

hopeinbrazil said...

Like you I watched and enjoyed the movies as a young person. When I rented them to watch with my kids I was a bit overwhelmed with all the drinking. Powell and Loy are definitely hilarious on screen, but as an older adult I couldn't enjoy movies that tried to portray drunkenness as cute.

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