The Thin Man
by Dashiell Hammett
Confession time. We’re all friends here, right? I have never seen one of the William Powell and Myrna Loy “Thin Man” films all the way through. I’ve managed to catch bits and pieces of a few and the ending to the first one thanks to AMC and TCM back when I had cable (and back when AMC played old films), but only due to a stroke of luck, a switch of the channel and a realization that I had a chance to see Nick and Nora Charles in the flesh. But I love the Charles’ all the same. The ready wit of both, the friendly barbs and easy banter, in and around the murders and chicanery, creates a breezy, fun atmosphere heightened by all the mid-20th century slang, hats and suits and cigarettes – and of course the dog antics.
William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles
So when I read The Thin Man, I was only able to imagine Powell and Loy as Nick and Nora, with all of Hammett’s snappy dialogue in Powell’s voice. In a way, though, I’m glad I’ve never seen the first film all the way through. It’s very different from the novel, with a plot simultaneously simplified and heightened for the screen. The book concerns a complex murder mystery with a seemingly endless array of suspects, a wide collection of characters and types, all with varying shades of motive, opportunity, and honesty. Nick navigates through the morass of clues and lies with the assistance of Nora, John Guild the policeman assigned to the case, and Herbert Macauley, the lawyer of the prime suspect in the case.
That suspect, Clyde Wynant, a reclusive and odd inventor, is the titular “thin man,” a moniker that would be subsumed by Nick Charles in the film series. The initial victim is Wynant’s secretary Julia Wolf, but the body count increases and this is a novel where no one is exactly who they seem to be and the most trustworthy members of society are ex-cons and safecrackers. Nick sort of falls into the investigation. He used to be a detective, but after marrying Nora, a wealthy heiress, he took over managing her wealth and properties. Normally they live in San Francisco, but they’re in New York for Christmas when the first murder occurs and after repeatedly and vociferously refusing to take the case, Nick finds himself looking into things anyway.
There’s a little bit of action but most of the book takes place in hotel rooms over drinks, with the occasional office or speakeasy fleshing things out. Told in the first person by Nick, the novel is almost entirely dialogue, with characters trading information and banter back and forth, intermixed with Nick’s wry and understated observations. There’s a lot going on under the surface, particularly with the Wynant family’s strange dynamics, but also with the unspoken rules of the underworld that Nick and Nora visit occasionally. Some things Nick explains, mostly to Nora, but there’s a good deal left on the page for the reader to pick apart and put together and wonder about.
And then there’s the drinking. Here’s a typical exchange that occurs one morning at a quarter past ten as Nick and Nora discuss the case:
[Nick:] “How about a drop of something to cut the phlegm?”
“Why don’t you stay sober today?”
“We didn’t come to New York to stay sober. Want to see a hockey game tonight?”
Over the course of the novel, Nick puts away an amount of alcohol that would make Gatsby blush, nor is Nick alone in his appreciation of spirits. The action takes place in December 1932, a year before Prohibition would be repealed, but alcohol is readily and frequently available. Everyone in the novel is a criminal, in effect, although some break more stringent laws then others. Nor does Nick involve himself in the investigation out of a desire for justice or to protect the public good. He’s drawn in more through a combination of self-interest, a little curiosity, and because he has some prior history with the Wynant family.
There’s a pragmatism to Nick Charles that is lacking in a Sherlock Holmes-type. Hammett’s own experience as a Pinkerton detective certainly colored the way he wrote his protagonists and the people they encountered. You get the sense that John Guild and Studsy Burke are probably types that Hammett knew well. But that authenticity isn’t the main attraction, nor is it the convoluted plot that you could almost put together yourself (although some revelations are saved for the final chapter, disappointingly). No, the main attraction is the hard-boiled language, the banter, the zingers, the witty bon mots.