Hammett, Dashiell. The Thin Man.

NY: Knopf, 1934.

Hammett, one of the fathers of the modern detective story, only wrote five novels, of which this was his last, about the wealthy and sophisticated Nick and Nora Charles. It’s difficult to read about Hammett’s other famous detective, Sam Spade, without imagining Bogie, who made the character his own but who also played the hardboiled Spade pretty much the way the author wrote him. When Nick and Nora came to the silver screen, though, William Powell and Myrna Loy mostly just played themselves, and they mostly played the Charleses for laughs. And that’s not at all fair to the book, which certainly wasn’t written as light comedy.

Nick, now forty, was a full-time professional detective for a national agency before he met and married Nora, who is fifteen years his junior. He wasn’t born a gentleman at all, being the son of a Greek immigrant who had his name changed at Ellis Island. Then Nora’s dad died and left her very well off, and Nick retired from the detecting game to look after his wife’s investments.

In the book, they’re only in New York for the Christmas and New Year holidays, mostly so Nora can get away from her family on the West Coast, who are driving her crazy. A decade before, Nick had worked on a case involving Clyde Wynant, an eccentric but successful inventor, who was married at the time to Mimi. Now, holed up in a luxurious hotel room, Nick is visited by their daughter, Dorothy Wynant, who is something of a wild child and also very naive. Dorothy hasn’t seen her father in some time but he’s in hiding while working on a new project and she needs to get hold of him urgently.

Meanwhile, Nick learns from the police that Julia Wolf, Clyde’s secretary/assistant (and probably also his ex-mistress) has been murdered. Why her? There are no obvious motives and it takes most of the book to discover what’s going on there. And then Mimi’s new husband, Jorgensen, turns out to be really a guy named Rosewater, who had hassled Clyde Wynant in that earlier case, claiming the theft of his ideas. Was his marriage to Clyde’s ex-wife just part of a revenge plot? And that’s just the opening chapters, and only the first murder.

It’s not a long book — barely 200 pages — but it’s a grim, complex story about some very unpleasant people and Nick takes a professional attitude in figuring it all out. His character in the book doesn’t really have much in common with Powell’s sardonic, semi-alcoholic film version. But Hammett’s prose is, as always, clean and incisive and nearly hypnotic, and even though the world he wrote about is now eight decades in the past, it’s a very modern-feeling place. And I invite you to time-travel to their world.

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