Kirk's Reviews > The Thin Man

The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett
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Nov 10, 2011

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If I weren't the mean teacher I am I'd cut Hammett slack and round up to four stars because this---the last of his novels---is a solid 3-1/2. And that's only because it pales in comparison to every one of his other novels except THE DAIN CURSE, which is the true 3-star.

The main knock on THIN is that Hammett was pretty much bored with fiction by this point in his career, having lost his bearings to booze, broads, and just about any other indulgence that began with a B except Billy Barty (too short for him). And those lost bearings are evident pretty much on every page. For starters, the plot isn't all that thrillsville, especially not compared to RED HARVEST or THE GLASS KEY. For a guy who made it a point to do away with the Sherlock Holmes/drawing room villain-unveiling that was a mainstay of the British Golden Era (as well as S.S. Van Dine, etc), Nick and Nora's final dinner party seems snipped straight from Agatha Christie. Also the book isn't anywhere near as hardboiled as the other novels, probably because Hammett was writing about a happily married man with a rich wife and therefore nothing to be disillusioned about. But that lack of beefstake points to a major flaw: Hammett doesn't really know what to do with Nora in here, except to have her take the dog Asta for a walk. She's pretty much a cipher, nowhere as near as lively or vivacious as Myrna Loy.

The real sogginess here, though, is the booze. As many critics have noted, you'd be hard-pressed to find a "classic" novel where the drinks flow this constantly. Seriously, by page 20 my blood alcohol was edging toward Rick Perry territory. My wife took my keys away from me by Chapter 8. By the denouement I was so blotto I not only let Snooki take me home but found her sorta cute, too. This isn't a Lost Territory sort of drunkenness, either. No Jake Barnes lamenting the loss of moral rigor while surrounded by rummies, no Geoffrey Firmin going off all Vesuvius-like in great bursts of dipsomania grandiloquence. This is pure being-drunky-skunky-is-fun drunkenness. Dean Martin might have commended the verisimilitude, but for readers who can't pop a second beer without warnings about alcoholism flashing in the distillery of their minds, it's probably presented a little too glibly to take comfortably.

That said, Hammett hits a home run in at least one influential way. With Nick and Nora he created the prototype of the wisecracking husband-and-wife detective team, one that will be ripped off endlessly in years to come in Hart to Hart, etc etc. The charm of the book is how un-threatened the Charles's marriage is by the venality of modern life. Hell, Nick can even wrestle a femme fatale to the ground and his wife's first response will be to ask if the tussle gave him a stiffie. (His answer: "Oh, a little"---come on, man! have confidence!). Even if Nora is only around to solve the mystery of her husband's tumescence, the repartee is the book's genius, and the tale is best enjoyed for it rather than any thrill or hardboiled sting.

The original cover of the book featured a picture of Hammett in his usual natty attire:
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It's a pretty good indicative of his fame at the time but also how trapped he was in the image he'd created for his writing. Most folks who read the book for the first time are surprised Nick isn't the titular character in all his svelte fashion stylin'. Instead, the thin man is a rather soupy victim we never really care about. And the book lacks for a major villain as interesting as Joel Cairo or that fat bastard Gutman (!) in THE MALTESE FALCON. The movie follows the plot and actually to my thinking works better. Still, THIN is an entertaining diversion if you can keep sober til the end. Hammett certainly couldn't.
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Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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message 1: by David (new)

David No good? I love the movie.


Kirk Fun, not great. Movie works better.


message 3: by Dave (new)

Dave Russell I'm always annoyed a little when I see that (by now) traditional crossword clue "The Thin Man's dog." Asta belongs to Nick and Nora. At the very least it's a poorly worded clue.


Books Ring Mah Bell I'm just going to guess this book was not about Axl Rose.


John You wrote, "Nick and Nora's final dinner party seems snipped straight from Agatha Christie. " -- um, that scene is in the movie, but there is no final 'dinner party' in the book.


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