Dashiell Hammett’s final novel, The Thin Man, features the beloved detective Nick Charles. Tough and self-possessed, Nick has retired from his days working for the Trans-American Detective Agency and has since married a socialite and moved to California. When our protagonist and his wife Nora go to vacation in New York City for the holidays, they find out about the disappearance of one of Nick’s former clients, the eccentric inventor Clyde Wynant, following the death of his secretary. Despite his best efforts, our not-so-retired detective is drawn back into the game by the mysterious situation and the persuasion of his wife. Along the way he gets caught up in all kinds of family drama, shares some delightfully witty banter with his wife, and consumes more than his fair share of martinis.
Nick Charles, though similar to other hard-boiled detectives before him, is full of humor, intelligence, and love for his wife, without whom we would likely find the novel to be lacking. Despite the fact that the former private eye physically operates alone, it’s his interactions with Nora that really help the reader to connect the dots and follow along with his investigation. To some degree she is the Watson to his Sherlock, though they function on the same level in many ways, namely their senses of humor demonstrated in their quippy back-and-forth conversations, like at the end of the first chapter on page five3:
Additionally, Nora acts as a strong female character who won’t let her husband get away with shoddy work, as is seen so prominently in the final chapter of the book where she makes sure to point out that his explanation is technically “just a theory” and, in the final line, calls it “all pretty unsatisfactory.” For me, the overall highlight of the book was the jocular interactions between the couple that I felt really highlighted how much they admire one another. Nora is one of the first female characters in the tradition to be portrayed in a positive manner. Compared to Red Harvest, also by Dashiell Hammett, and the character Dinah, the most prominent female, Nora is progressive.
I find it hard to express why I found it so difficult to get through this book. It has all of the makings of a great detective story: romantic intrigue, a missing suspect, humor, and a rather interesting cast of characters. And yet, I found myself struggling to make it from one chapter to the next. As someone who enjoys a gritty mystery, I almost felt that the story was both missing some elements and blowing them out to unrealistic, hyperbolic proportions. There’s something special about the lone wolf detective that just works, and while I thoroughly enjoyed the Charles’ relationship, it changed the dynamic of the novel, especially if you compare it to the work of Raymond Chandler who is often considered Hammett’s successor.9 That being said, one of the things that I found most irksome as someone who appreciates a realistic approach in this genre was the amount of alcohol consumed by most people in the novel, but especially Nick. If you were to take a drink every time he orders an alcoholic beverage or suggests that he get one, you would have to stop reading because the words would be swimming off the pages after about ten chapters (around 40 pages, less than a quarter of the book).
In my opinion, the relationship between Nick and Nora, though relatively different for the hard-boiled genre, was one of the novel’s only redeeming qualities. Typically, a hard-boiled detective works on their own, and it is not uncommon for them to have misogynistic views. It was clear in The Thin Man that the Charles cared a great deal for each other and their witty dialogue was truly enjoyable and engaging. If not for Nora and her fascination with her husband’s previous career, Nick would probably not have become involved in the investigation. The significance of their relationship is best expressed by the description written on the back of my copy of the book3:
The Thin Man, like Hammett’s other works, fits decidedly in the category of a hard-boiled detective story. In fact, Dashiell Hammett is acknowledged as the founder of the realistic or hard-boiled division of detective writing.2 His lean writing style, complex plots, and overall cynical characters helped to define the genre of private eye detectives and to revitalize pulp magazines.2 The Trans-American Detective Agency is likely a fictionalized version of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, where Hammett was employed for a portion of his life.2 Pinkerton is a common theme in the hard-boiled genre and Hammett’s firsthand experiences were vital in creating a realistic detective in this novel as well as in his other works. Another aspect of the hard-boiled tradition that is apparent in The Thin Man is the protagonist acting as an Emersonian hero.1 This means that he is self-reliant and self-motivated, all while being tenacious, chivalrous, and having high moral value. The hard-boiled genre differs from others because of how the detective operates in relation to legal proceedings. As is exemplified in this novel, the detective works for himself or is employed as a private investigator, and has nothing to do with the conviction of the criminal. Nick works until he finds out what happens, but doesn’t really bother to stick around so his theory can be confirmed. The story we read begins and ends with the detective, but the crime can still exist outside of the confines that we get to read.
As a book in the hard-boiled genre, The Thin Man was highly successful. Though this book is the only one to include Nick and Nora Charles, their story has been adapted for the silver screen, with six films featuring the couple, the first of which was released on June 8, 1936 as a radio play.9
The Thin Man also inspired a TV series of the same name which ran from 1957 through 1959, starring Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk, and a comedy spoof called Murder by Death, which starred David Niven and Maggie Smith as Dick and Dora Charleston. In addition to these, there have been a variety of other references to the beloved couple through the ages, with the most recent being the 2013 Australian crime comedy series Mr & Mrs Murder which features a married couple Nicola and Charlie Buchanan.9
Overall, I would give The Thin Man 5/10. It is clear how the novel has been influential, but I did not truly enjoy myself while I was reading it. There were aspects I liked, such as the relationship and dialogue between Nick and Nora, but the book never really captured my attention. I would, however, recommend the book to anyone who is a fan of mysteries set in the 1930’s and who appreciates the value of reading a book to better understand those in the same genre that come after it.
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Bibliography, Links, and Additional Resources:
1. Biral, Robert Lyman. “The American Hero-Quester.” Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute, Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute, teachersinstitute.yale.edu/curriculum/units/1979/1/79.01.01.x.html.
2. “Dashiell Hammett.” MysteryNet.com. Mystery Net and Newfront Productions, Inc., n.d. Web. http://www.mysterynet.com/hammett.
3. Hammett, Dashiell. The Thin Man. Vintage Books, a Division of Random House, 2006.
4. Malmgren, Carl D. “The Crime of the Sign: Dashiell Hammett’s Detective Fiction.” Twentieth Century Literature 45 (1999): 371-84. Duke University Press. Web.
5. Mazzeno, Laurence W. “The Thin Man – Critical Evaluation.” Enotes.com. Enotes.com, 2010. Web. https://www.enotes.com/topics/thin-man
6. Pierce, J. Kingston. “Let’s Talk About the Black Bird.” January Magazine. January Magazine, Feb. 2005. Web.
7. Smith, Kevin Burton. “Nick and Nora Charles.” The Thrilling Detective Web Site, www.thrillingdetective.com/charles.html.
8. The Thin Man – Trailer. Dir. W. S. Van Dyke. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1934. YouTube. YouTube Movies, 11 May 2011. Web. https://youtu.be/pkgYjeFYQ2c
9. “The Thin Man.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 21 Oct. 2017. Web. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Thin_Man
10. “The Thin Man (Film).” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 16 Sept. 2017, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Thin_Man_(film)#Adaptations.
11. Thomas, Drew R. “The “Golden” Age: America: 1918-1930.” World’s Best Detective Crime and Murder Mystery Books. RAP Diligence, Inc., n.d. Web.