Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Thin Man

This week, I finished Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man (1932), a gripping, twisty thriller in which a former detective comes back to New York and gets caught up in a murder investigation involving people he once worked for. It's a brilliant, clever and funny book - and though I saw the ending some miles off, the delight is as much in how Hammett gets there as what that ending is.

His is a broken world, where pretty much everyone is flawed and/or broken. Our hero, Nick Charles, is a hard-drinking cynic, who can spot the threads of the mystery only because he's got such a jaded view of humanity. He's usually one step ahead of the other reprobates in the story - the drunks and hoodlums, the bullying cops and wild children - and his only reward is to get roughed up and shot. Women can't help falling in love with him - or are they throwing themselves at him in exchange for something else?

Nick keeps telling people he's no longer a detective and that he's not taken the case, but the more he insists the less people believe him. Besides, his wife Nora is fascinated in the unravelling gossip and scandal, and it's Christmas - so they spend their whole time being invited to drinks with the people who are involved.

Nora's a fascinating character - the only nice person in the whole story. I absolutely love her reaction at the end as Nick finally spells out the mystery - she gets the last line of the book:
"'That may be,' Nora said, 'but it's all pretty unsatisfactory.'"
Dashiell Hammett, The Thin Man (1932), p. 190.

There are all sorts of stylist flourishes. A lot of the time, Nick plays dumb, refusing to say what he thinks is going on or what he thinks of particular people - "I don't know" could be his catchphrase - which means we're all the more eager to get inside his head. The first few chapters are all very short - many no more than two pages - which really helps us get caught up in the story. The dialogue is sparky and sassy, and often gets interrupt-

Which makes the scenes feel frenetic. In some ways, the rickety-click of the dialogue and the revelations give it the feel of a bedroom farce, only with brutal murders and psychosis. It's easy to see why Hammett's work made such good movies. (As well as straight adaptations, his influence can be seen in films such as Yojimbo and Millers Crossing (one of my favourite ever films). My chum Eddie Robson writes about that in his excellent Coen brothers book.)

The Thin Man is not the best of Hammett's five novels - that, I think, is Red Harvest (1929), followed by The Maltese Falcon (1930). But it's clever, concise and compelling adventure - and a masterclass in writing a thriller.

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