BY SEAN CLARK
Author: Dashiell Hammett
Filed Under: Mystery.
For whatever reason, I’ve never really been into mystery novels. But after unexpectedly finding a lot of enjoyment in No Rest for the Dead, I wanted to ride the wave a little longer and figured I ought to hit some of the classics. I opted to hold off on Sir Doyle (A Study in Scarlet is in my short pile), and go for the more gumshoe-y cred of Dashiell Hammett. I wanted something that I would be totally ignorant of, so The Maltese Falcon was out–I love the film. The Thin Man, though it doesn’t have any written sequels, spawned a very popular series of films (that have been languishing in my Netflix–Qwikster?–queue for ages), and seemed to have a strong following of fans on the internet. So I went to library and snagged a copy.
This is more or less your straigth forward whodunnit. Julia Wolf, assistant to the eccentric, somewhat hermetic, Clyde Wynant turns up full of bullets, and Wynant is nowhere to be found. Nick Charles is a retired detective, returned to New York City from San Francisco for a vacation with his wife, Nora. An old acquaintance with the Wynants, and assumed by most everyone to be on the case (although he tries somewhat half-heartedly to not get involved), Nick is drawn into the investigation.
The book’s style is fun and breezy. Nick, with enough edge to be interesting, is perfectly set up to play the protagonist for a mystery like this: Hammett carefully keeps him one step ahead of the other characters but one step behind the unraveling mystery, thus orienting the reader in just the right spot for compelling tension. A similar balance is struck with the characterization–Nick means business, but he never takes things too seriously. The cast of characters around him are all strong, while still fulfilling the stereotypical (prototypical?) roles of the usual suspects you expect from a mystery like this: scheming, rich ex-wife; guilty-seeming oddball son; beautiful but naive young woman; shifty lawyer; hard boiled policeman; wormy stool pigeon, etc.
And man, do they drink a lot. The book mostly occurs in night clubs (namely speakeasies, since it occurs during Prohibition) and various characters’ apartments, and in every scene they’re tossing them back, often before breakfast. Despite the rampant boozing, Nick and Nora (who is sharp-as-a-whip) generally keep their wits, unlike some other characters who get a little “tight” on liquor. The ability to consume so much and still keep his edge adds a lot to Nick’s character (and to Nora’s as his foil). The mystery here is solid, but not overly meaty. It would be passable for a hard-boiled detective story, but the levity of Nick’s character and circumstance–he’s both retired and on vacation, remember–add a winning degree of personality to the book.
The Thin Man is a good package all around, and a solid pick-up for just about any reader. Most people can probably get through it in an afternoon pretty easily. It definitely brought me back to the old days of my childhood when I used to read a ton of Encyclopedia Brown books (though this is obviously more complex than those), and it whet my appetite for more classic mysteries like this.
Similar Reads: The Maltese Falcon (Hammett), No Rest for the Dead (Gulli, ed.). Also, the recent video game L.A. Noire does some rather interesting mystery stuff storytelling-wise and cinematically…for a while, then it gets pretty stale.
[Note: If you need help with the September 20, 1999 NY Times crossword, the dog’s name is Asta.]