The Thin Man

My book group met today to discuss Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man. I just counted, and this is the twenty-fourth book we have discussed. I’m happy to say that our discussion was as much fun as they always are, and also that the new members we welcomed to the group fit right in. The Thin Man is the second Hammett book we have read; the first was The Glass Key, the book our group started with almost three years ago.

I enjoyed reading The Thin Man, but I liked The Glass Key better. There was something a little flat about the writing in The Thin Man. It’s written in a similar style as The Glass Key, but in that book, the style matched the bleakness of the world Hammett described, and there were moments when Hammett seemed to be reaching toward some larger meaning, if only to make a point about the meaninglessness of existence. It’s a very pared down, economical style without much attention given to the interior worlds of the characters, and in The Glass Key it hinted at the hopelessness and darkness of life. In The Thin Man the general tone is lighter and the main character, Nick Charles is not alone – he has his wife, the charming, witty Nora. But to me, at least, the pared-down, economical style came across as lacking in this new context. I wanted a little more liveliness, a little more about the main character, and also a little more in the way of ideas. The Glass Key gave me more to think about.

But, still, The Thin Man is an interesting book, particularly because of the relationship between Nick and Nora. My book group talked a lot about how it’s unusual to find such a strong female character in noir and how satisfying it was to see that she is Nick’s equal. He is clearly the “detective” in the novel (he officially gave up detecting six years ago, but he is still the expert at it), but she has insights that are valuable, as well as wisecracks and jokes.

I think, ultimately, that the world described in The Thin Man is just as dark as the world of The Glass Key, but rather than describing someone suffering from that darkness as Ned Beaumont does in The Glass Key, in The Thin Man we get a picture of a couple trying to escape it. Nick and Nora spend the whole book drinking. In fact, it’s amazing that Nick is able to think about the murder at all because he spends just about the whole book drunk. He and Nora are always staying up into the early hours of the morning drinking and they barely drag themselves out of bed by noon, when the first thing Nick does is make himself another drink. They have money because of an inheritance from Nora’s father, so they can spend their lives doing whatever they want, along with devoting a little bit of time to making sure their investments stay solid. Everyone else in the book, though, is thoroughly messed up. At the center of the novel’s mystery is the Wyant family, every member of which is eccentric at best and abusive at worst. They do terrible things to each other, as do the book’s other couple, the Quinn’s. The only happy relationship is the one between Nick and Nora. And it’s easy to wonder just how happy they would be if they didn’t have their money and their alcohol.

So the message seems to be that life sucks, and if you’re lucky, you’ll have the means to ignore it. If not, you’re stuck. I wanted the book to confront that reality more directly, however, which is something The Glass Key did very well.

I haven’t watched the movie yet, but it’s coming from Netflix soon. From what people said today, it sounds like it’s lighter and funnier than the book was, and I’m eager to make the comparison myself.

13 Comments

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13 responses to “The Thin Man

  1. I will admit I have not read the books, only seen the films. From what you describe, it sounds as if the films were very faithful to the books.

    I love the positive portrayal of marriage as seen in Nick and Nora — enjoying each other’s company, treating each other with respect, working together to solve a case, etc. So many films from that time, and even today, portray marriage in such a negative light. I liked that they worked as a team, and had fun “rising above” the dark times. But yes, the fact they are constantly drinking does seem to send the message that life sucks and being numb is the only way to cope.

  2. Mister Litlove and I listened to this as an audio book many, many years ago. I have fond memories of it, but that may have more to do with the fact we were newly-ish married and, I believe, headed on holiday, when I heard it. The context turns out to be influential! But if The Glass Key is better, then I’m tempted to get hold of that for 2011.

  3. I’ve never read the Glass Key, but now I want to!
    I really enjoyed the Thin Man, but I think the movie’s even better. There’s a lot of chemistry there! (And Asta!)

  4. Edna

    I have not read any of the books, but I am now. Thanks so much for the review. My husband and I are fans of the movies and our favorite is After the Thin Man. I believe it was the second one made. I don’t really see the darkness in The Thin Man movies the same as in The Maltese Falcon. So, I am really looking forward to reading the books.

  5. I have never read Hammett and have always meant to. The I haven’t read X but have always meant to is a perpetual list and Hammett is perpetually on it. I hope to read him someday, but the list doesn’t seem to be getting any shorter!

  6. I read this years ago and couldn’t quite remember if I had or not until you described the endless binge drinking and that rang a bell! I’d like to read more Hammett and Raymond Chandler. The books are thin and quick reads but it’s always a matter of squeezing yet more books in! I remember shopping a few years ago and coming across a line of silk pajamas (nice PJs–tops and bottoms type) and the designer was “Nick and Norah”. How’s that for a little literary inspiration.

  7. …Sorry, should be “Nick and Nora”…

  8. I’ve started having a taste in noir, at least in film, which I didn’t when I was younger. I should have another look at the movie first.

  9. The Glass Key sounds great – though the Nick and Nora relationship also sound intriguing, too. I will look for Key and start there. I haven’t read this writer yet. Thanks for this review!

  10. Dorothy,
    I haven’t read the books or seen the movies. But your post has piqued my interest, since I’m always on the lookout for ‘books into films’. I’ve posted an “Upcoming Books Into Films” list in early December, those are some of the planned book adaptations coming out the next year or two. Time for them to do a remake of The Thin Man and The Glass Key maybe?

  11. Debby, I have the first Thin Man film now and hope to watch it soon. My impression from what people have said about the book and film is that the film is lighter in tone. I also enjoyed the portrayal of the couple, and yes, they do seem to be having tons of fun.

    Litlove — oh, what a fun thing to do when newly married! I would have fond memories of that too :) I’d love it if you tried The Glass Key.

    Bardiac — I’m really looking forward to watching the movie, especially since you think it’s that good.

    Edna — perhaps I will have to watch the whole series, then. I think I would really enjoy doing that. The Maltese Falcon is another one I haven’t seen or read, so I’ll have to get there eventually.

    Stefanie — I know just what you mean! I’m always saying “I’m hoping to read X soon,” but I rarely actually do it. Still, I’m always optimistic!

    Danielle — Nick and Nora silk pajamas! How fun :) I’ve enjoyed the Chandler and Hammett I’ve read over the last few years (three books total) and would like to read more, but yes, squeezing more books in is more complicated than it should be!

    Lilian — interesting how reading and film-watching tastes can change. I never used to read mysteries at all, and now I enjoy them a lot (that’s what a good book group will do).

    Melissa — I hope you enjoy Hammett! Both books are interesting in their different ways. I guess he’s most famous for The Maltese Falcon, so I should read that one too.

    Arti — a remake of those two films could be very interesting if done well. I remember enjoying your post on books into film — lots to look forward to!

  12. I haven’t read this book yet, though I mean to. However, I second the praise for the films. William Powell and Myrna Loy are great on screen together!

  13. Pingback: #86 – The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett « Let's eat, Grandpa! Let's eat Grandpa! (Punctuation saves lives.)

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