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Top mysteries challenge review of The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett

I was recently lucky enough to come across a cheap hardcover omnibus volume of all five of Dashiel Hammett’s novels, and as four of them are part of my Top Mysteries challenge, I consider this a piece of good fortune.

This book, Hammett’s final novel, was the spark that started the series of Thin Man films, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy as sleuthing pair Nick & Nora Charles. Like many others, I was under the impression that Hammett had written a series of Thin Man books, but when I did a little research, I discovered that this was the only book and the rest of the Thin Man stories were all movie originals, some of which seem to have been based on stories written by Hammett exclusively to be turned into movies.

Year of publication: 1934
Genre: Mystery, detective novel
Type of mystery: Murder, missing person
Type of investigator: Private detective (retired)
Setting & time: New York, USA; 1930s

Retired private eye Nick Charles gets dragged into a case involving murder and a missing person when a young woman asks him to help her find her father, a former client from Nick’s P.I. days (the eponymous Thin Man). Subsequently the Thin Man’s lawyer, his ex-wife, the police and the crook wanted for the murder of his secretary all refuse to believe that Nick isn’t investigating the case, forcing him into it, although he never admits that that’s what he is doing. Everyone (excepting Nora), the police included, lies through their teeth all the time and backstabbing is rife, giving Nick a hard time puzzling together the clues, but eventually he gets there, which is a wonder in itself, as he is cheerfully half-drunk most of the time.

One can’t help wondering if The Thin Man isn’t a parody of the hardboiled detective genre that Hammett helped popularise with his stories about the Continental Op and Sam Spade. Nick is tipsy (and sometimes more than that) most of the time, and yet he seems to have all his senses set on full strength, has perfect recall, can draw complicated conclusions and manages to be charming and funny even when about to pass out from drinking. Of course he could be a typical unreliable narrator, fooling the reader into complacency by his descriptions of his constant drinking, but that doesn’t change the fact that he is a very comic character, and the story itself, with the constantly lying Wynants, bumbling police, cheerleading Nora and supporting cast of criminals and hard-boiled dames is very funny and while quite a good puzzle plot mystery with numerous twists, turns and red herrings, has an unmistakable air of parody and even sometimes touches of satire about it. Nick gives one the impression of being a big softie with a core of steel who has the heart of gold act down so pat that he believes in it himself.

There is a lot of dialogue, which makes the narrative confusing, as clues are hidden all over the place, sometimes even in the wording that the characters use. Hammett was clearly in fine form when he wrote it, and it's a shame he never wrote another novel.

Rating: Confusing, thrilling and very funny hard-boiled classic. 4+ stars.

This is the first book I finish in the Mystery Reader Cafe 2009 chellenge: the author new to me.


big mike said…
One of the "Thin Man" movie sequels has a story arc lifted from a Continental Op story. IIRC, Hammett shared writing credit on that particular sequel.

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