Book Review: The Thin Man

Dashiell Hammett’s novel, The Thin Man  launched one of the golden age’s greatest detective movie franchises, along with a popular radio program, as well as a 1950s syndicated TV series. The movies remain a fantastic showcase of the talents and chemistry of William Powell and Myrna Loy.

The Nick and Nora in this book don’t have the pure level of charm and chemistry that made the movies so enjoyable. That was all the work of Powell, Loy, and direct W.S. Van Dyne. The book is good but different. The Thin Man is a comedy of manners mixed with a solid mystery.

Nick Charles is a retired private eye who gets pressed into investigating the murder of a woman in which a former client of his named Clyde Wynant is a suspect, though Wynant (who was the actual thin man not Charles) has been missing for quite some time. The mystery is actually pretty well done. The interaction between Charles and the policeman investigating the case are great detective work and thinking.

The comedy of manners portion works on many levels. Nick Charles is the ex-detective and committed husband who operates and understands many circles in life: from the wealthy socialites to the petty hoods that predominated during prohibition. The Wynant family is a freak show of children ruined by money and an ex-wife who is a compulsive liar. Compared to high society, the criminals and mobsters in the story are a far more sane and decent lot.

Of course, that leaves us with a story where the only sympathetic characters are Nick and Nora. Nora tries to help the daughter, Dorothy Wynant despite the fact that she’s just as much a part of the craziness as everyone else. Nick is a mature man whose grounded and wants nothing more to do with the Wynants (understandably) or the murder, but is fully settled down from his hard-scramble days as an operative.

Hammett does make a few odd decisions. Most notable was the verbatim inclusion of a story of the Donner party or a reasonable facsimile thereof that took more than ten minutes for the audiobook narrator to read. And there were a few characters that were just plain tiresome rather than amusing, particularly the ex-wife Mimi and the son Gilbert. Also the conclusion lacks the class of the silver screen denouement.

Still, it’s amusing mix that features Dashiell Hammett’s talents at his peak.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5.0

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