Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Dashiell Hammett was one of what you might call the founders of the American hardboiled novel and one the best-known of that generation of mystery writers. Not to include Hammett’s work in this feature would be an egregious lapse, so today, let’s take a look at Hammett’s last novel The Thin Man.
The Thin Man begins shortly after Nick and Nora Charles have come from San Francisco, where they live, to New York on a visit. By chance, Nick, a former private detective, is spotted by Dorothy Wynant, the daughter of a former client. She wants to track down her father Clyde Wynant, whom she hasn’t seen since his bitter breakup with her mother Mimi. Then, Nick gets a visit from Wynant’s attorney Herbert Macaulay, who says he hasn’t seen Wynant for a few months and wonders whether Nick’s been hired to find Wynant. The next morning, Wynant’s former secretary Julia Wolf is found murdered. Against his will, Nick’s drawn into the case.
There are several suspects in Julia Wolf’s murder. One is Wynant himself. Wolf was skimming money from his accounts, and it’s possible he found out. Another is Wolf’s old flame, local crime boss Shep Morelli. And then there’s Wynant’s greedy ex-wife Mimi Jorgensen. Wynant’s children Gil and Dorothy may also have had their reasons for committing the murder. There are also some shady associations in Wynant’s past and they, too, might have had their reasons for committing murder. Even Nick Charles comes under suspicion, mostly because his and Nora’s place in New York seems to become a gathering place for all of the other suspects.
With the case not seeming to go away, Nick Charles has no choice but to get involved, and starts to put the pieces together. In the end, and after another death, he finds out what happened to Claude Wynant and how that ties in with Julia Wolf’s murder and the other murder.
This is a hardboiled novel (although it isn’t nearly as gritty as some entries in that genre). So as you can imagine, violence is a part of this story. It’s not gratuitous, but there are fistfights and shooting, and Nick Charles has to battle his way out of a few situations. There’s also the fast pace and action that’s often associated with hardboiled novels. Nick is neither stupid nor shallow, and he’s not especially impulsive, but neither is he reflective or introspective. There’s also the cynicism that you see in many hardboiled novels. The characters are not at all trusting of each other and for good reason. In fact, the only genuine bond in the novel is between Nick and Nora.
The mystery is intriguing and its solution isn’t obvious. The careful reader can pick up the clues, but the puzzle of what happened to Wynant and how the killer hid the crimes is a neat one. Nick’s explanation of the case makes sense and the ways in which he goes about finding out the truth are logical.
Another element that runs through this novel is the set of characters. For instance, there’s the badly dysfunctional Wynant family, whom we watch with a kind of morbid fascination. Mimi Wynant in particular is interesting in the sense that she absolutely cannot be believed, no matter what. Here’s what Nick Charles says about her:
“When you catch her in a lie, she admits it and gives you another lie to take its place and, when you catch her in that one, admits it and gives you still another, and so on….She keeps trying and you’ve got to be careful or you’ll find yourself believing her, not because she seems to be telling the truth, but simply because you’re tired of disbelieving her.”
Mimi’s not a pleasant character, but it is interesting to slowly uncover how much of what she says is the truth and how much isn’t. Her son Gilbert is a brilliant young man, somewhat of a misfit, who has his own theory about the murder. In his own way, he’s the most appealing member of the family, but even he’s dysfunctional. Dorothy has a host of her own problems, too. Nick isn’t particularly enamoured of any of them, but he doesn’t seem able to avoid them.
One of the really appealing characters in the novel is Nora Charles, a bright, attractive socialite. She’s smart and intuitive and plays a role in solving the mystery. She’s tolerant of Nick but hardly a patsy, and considering the era during which the novel was written, she’s a fairly strong and independent female character.
The novel was published in 1934, just after the repeal of Prohibition, and that era is reflected throughout it. The characters spend quite a lot of time in speakeasies and other places where they can drink (in fact, an awful, awful lot of drinking goes on in this novel). And the attitudes of the day are prevalent. For example, there are a few ethnic references that probably wouldn’t be acceptable by today’s standards. And there’s quite a lot of gender-based stereotyping. The book isn’t misogynist in the sense that Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me is often thought to be. But there’s very little respect for women in the novel and Nora Charles is one of the few female characters who isn’t portrayed negatively. I admit, that aspect of it annoyed me. But if one looks at it as a “period piece,” it’s actually a fascinating “snapshot” of the era.
The backdrop for the story is the New York City of the early 1930’s, and Hammett places the reader there unmistakeably. For instance, here’s a snippet of a taxi ride:
“I had my driver turn south at Third, east again on Fifty-sixth, and south again on Second Avenue, and by that time I was pretty sure a yellow taxi was following me. I couldn’t see whether my small man was in it, of course; it wasn’t close enough for that.”
As we follow Nick and Nora in the investigation, we get a real sense of the restaurants, hotels, speakeasies and other businesses of New York during the time the book was written.
The Thin Man is a hardboiled, sometimes darkly funny, mystery with “period” characters and dialogue, an interesting mystery and an engaging couple who solve it. But what’s your view? Have you read The Thin Man? If you have, what’s your view?
Hammett never wrote a sequel to The Thin Man, but the novel became the basis for a series of popular films with William Powell and Myrna Loy in the lead roles. The films are more lighthearted than the novel is.
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 1 August/Tuesday 2 August – Earthly Delights – Kerry Greenwood
Monday 8 August/Tuesday 9 August – A Window in Copacabana – Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza
Monday 15 August/Tuesday 16 August – Suffer the Little Children – Donna Leon