Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Thin Man, Dashiell Hammett

The Thin ManI was leaning against the bar in a speakeasy on Fifty-second Street, waiting for Nora to finish her Christmas shopping, when a girl got up from the table where she had been sitting with three other people and came over to me. She was small and blonde, and whether you looked at her face or her body in powder-blue sports clothes, the result was satisfactory. 

"Nick and Nora Charles are Hammett's most enchanting creations, a rich, glamorous couple who solve homicides in between wisecracks and martinis. At once knowing and unabashedly romantic, The Thin Man is a murder mystery that doubles as a sophisticated comedy of manners."

I loved the opening of The Thin Man; it was so funny and to-the-point. The first sentence, it seems to me, is the typical hard-boiled detective opening: leaning against a counter, a girl walks up to him. Except for the addition that his wife is doing Christmas shopping. Unlike The Maltese Falcon, there's kind of a balance between toughness and something else: "knowing and unabashedly romantic", as the blurb put it. Nora herself is one tough customer. 

Still, I have to say: the movie is better. (Gasp). Scandalous, I know. In almost every case, the book is way better than the movie. And probably in terms of the style, the book is much better. But the movie is more funny and more witty than the book. I haven't seen the film in a while (although I've watched others in the series recently), so I can't really say whether the events in the two versions differed dramatically, although I think they did a little bit. One thing I did notice was that in the book, Asta, their dog, is female; in the movie the dog is a male. I also remembered that in the film Wynant was murdered first, but perhaps I was wrong. As I said, it's been a while. It turned out, though, that I was correct. 

Anyway, I couldn't help finding the book inferior to the film, but it was still good in its way. A lot of the time I wasn't sure what the heck was happening, but I just went with it, and it all worked out. There are a lot of characters and names to remember, and they aren't introduced very well (character development is kind of thin in a novel like this). There are the Wynants (several of them), the Jorgensons, the policeman, and a whole host of other usual and unusual suspects that Nick has to take into account. Nick is, of course, retired at the beginning of the book, but he's quickly coaxed out of retirement to help solve the case, especially since the Wynants are old friends of his. 

The mystery itself certainly isn't as brilliant as something concocted by Christie or Arthur Conan Doyle, but it is a pretty good one. I think it lends itself better to the screen rather than the page, but The Thin Man is still worth reading. As you might except, there are some great one-liners in the book. That's what I love about the noir genre, even if the mystery itself is not the best. 

It was interesting that the book was narrated by Nick Charles, the detective, himself. Usually most mysteries are in third person or narrated by an observer of the events (like Watson in Sherlock Holmes). Most of Christie's mysteries are narrated in third person, although some like The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (which is brilliant, by the way) are narrated by someone else. That's generally to preserve the mystery, I think. 

Being set in the 20's, the book is a little bit sexist, but certainly not as much as I was expecting it to be. The films are actually a bit more sexist. From what I've heard though Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep is not only sexist, but also homophobic. I'm not sure if I'm going to read it. Possibly. 

Here are some favorite quotes: “The problem with putting two and two together is that sometimes you get four, and sometimes you get twenty-two.” 

“She grinned at me. 'You got types?'
'Only you darling - lanky brunettes with wicked jaws.” 

“Nora: "How do you feel?" 
Nick: "Terrible. I must've gone to bed sober.” 

180 pages. 

Rating: 3.5 stars. 

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