Monday, 10 February 2014

Hammett's "The Thin Man" The Granddaddy of the Private Detective Novel

I just finished reading Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man, which was published back in 1934. One of my favourite mystery authors is Robert B. Parker, and as I read The Thin Man, I could hear how Hammett influenced subsequent authors writing in the private detective genre. Nick Charles is the wise-cracking, brave, and brawling hero who has a healthy libido when it comes to women, but is devoted to his wife, Nora. Nora is no slouch, either; she's smart, matches Nick drink-for-drink, and is keen to meet all his shady pals and help out with the sleuthing. And speaking of the drinking - oh my goodness! This is during the Depression and prohibition, when private clubs and speakeasies flourished. Nick and Nora usually leave a party around midnight to move onto a speakeasy - and maybe another - before they totter off to bed at 5 a.m. Then they start their day with drinks before breakfast gets sent up from the hotel kitchen. It sure helps that Nora's father left her money, and that they can afford hotels and restaurant meals, trips to New York and lots of booze. They don't dabble in drugs, but there's no scarcity of it with the socialites they encounter, either.

It's a fast-reading novel. Much of  the story is told through dialogue, flashing from one character to another, scene by scene. Nick dallies with lots of characters - police, criminals, and socialites - and you have to stay on top of them all or you'll be lost. I was slogging through revisions of my own mystery while I was reading this and didn't get through it all in one go, so I sometimes wondered who Nick was speaking to if it wasn't one of the prime characters. Still, The Thin Man is a fun read and a wonderful little nugget of its time - it's swell!

I've watched a few of The Thin Man movies which were inspired by Hammett's book, and I'm a fan of William Powell and Myrna Loy, who played Nick and Nora (not to mention the terrier, Asta). They nailed the breezy wit and boozy bravado of Hammett's characters, but now that I've read the book, I wish that someone a little tougher and with a little more weight had played Nick. Someone more like Parker's Spenser character, perhaps, although not someone who looks like a retired boxer. It would be interesting if the movie makers did a remake of The Thin Man to see who they would cast from among today's actors. If anyone has a suggestion,  I'd love to hear it; just leave it in the "Comments" section below.

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