The Thin Man (1934) – Dashiell Hammett

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Ex- private detective Nick Charles returns to New York with his wife Nora (and dog Asta) for what he thinks will be a brief Christmas holiday, and a chance to catch up with old friends. When he bumps into Dorothy Wynant, daughter of Nick’s old client Clyde Wynant, she asks him to track down her father, the titular Thin Man. Nick does his best to avoid getting pulled back into detecting. But the murder of Clyde Wynant’s secretary Julia Wolf drags Nick further and further into the case. More bodies start to appear, but the Thin Man seems more elusive than ever. With Dorothy’s happiness on the line, can Nick track down the killer?

This book is the first Dashiell Hammett I’ve read. In fact it’s the first hardboiled/private detective adjacent book I’ve read, too; not that I would describe this book as hardboiled. To some extent it’s exactly what it appears to be: the adventures of a witty husband-and-wife detecting duo solving a murder. But I think behind that facade, what it really is is a deconstruction of detective fiction and the expectations of its readers. Despite the wisecracks, The Thin Man strives for some kind of realism. It makes a point to meander, to focus on irrelevant events, to place key events off-screen, and to deny the satisfying tie-up of character plots. Depending on your mood, this could come across as the best joke of all – though it does make it harder to review. Personally I was left non-plussed.

That’s not to say, however, that the mystery plot is bad. In fact, there is a central trick that would be pretty solid in a classic-style mystery. I have no idea if this would work as a clued mystery; I doubt it would. But it twists, turns, and misdirects well enough to leave you guessing. Nick acquits himself well in catching the killer, making good use of his knowledge of the key players and their situations. Reading along, we are treated to his hunches and hints, which might stretch things too far in terms of understanding how he came to figure things out. He’s also, for the most part, an extremely passive central figure, to the point that he frustrated me at times. He really, really does not want to be a detective; the main reason he decides to catch the culprit in the end seems to be because it gets people to stop bothering him. To be fair, I imagine many of us would want to kick back and enjoy the parties, in Nick’s position, but as a fan of detective fiction, Nora’s position was much more sympathetic. Nora’s naive and romantic ideas about detection are proven wrong, but along with pushing Nick into detecting, she also pushes him to be more generous to others. Even as the plot rewards and agrees with Nick’s cynicism, Nora’s positivity comes across as charming, even if it’s probably due to the privileged life she’s led.

The other characters – the main ones, and at least a few of the bit-parts – could all be described as “pieces of work”. Even Dorothy Wynant, the most sympathetic of them, lies and conceals, and is in her own way just as self-centred as the rest of the ex-Wynant family “unit”. Relationships and characters are messy and have no “arc” like you might find in a conventional novel. In this way, the book does meet an idea of realism, if realism is showing the worst sides of the worst family you know. Actually, Mimi, Gilbert, and Jorgenson all seem more like caricatures than rounded characters – much in the way of many characters in detective fiction.
As the main characters all have something to conceal, so too do the minor ones. Hammet is successful in portraying these as though this is just a moment in their lives, which are full and complicated even when the camera’s not on them. And again he chooses to leave threads untucked. We never find out most of these character’s secrets or how much they really know.

As a classic detective fiction reader, I found this book challenging at times. The way it resists getting to the point, the lack of purpose and resolution, at times made reading it unenjoyable. But ultimately I’m glad I experienced it, and not just for having ticked off a minor cultural touchstone. I appreciate what it’s doing, and I found it unlike any of my other detective fiction reads – though that’s probably a sign that I need to read more broadly in the genre! How representative it is of Hammet’s other work remains for me to find out.
A review of the movie is coming up soon.

Other opinions:

The Passing Tramp

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