THE THIN MAN (1934) – Mystery writer Dashiell Hammett’s final novel, The Thin Man, introduced former private detective Nick Charles and his wealthy socialite wife Nora. After marrying Nora, Nick left detective work in order to manage her business interests.
When a former client of Nick’s – eccentric inventor and title character Clyde Wynant – is suspected of murdering his female assistant/ mistress Julia Wolf, Nick is told that Clyde wants him to prove his innocence. Though retired, Nick is unwillingly drawn deeper into the investigation by circumstances beyond his control.
The Thin Man is set in New York City from Christmas Day of 1932 through the following few days, making it ideal Christmas into New Year’s reading material. Unlike Hammett’s Sam Spade and Continental Op characters, Nick and Nora Charles live it up among the wealthy and famous, traveling at will, dining at the best restaurants and gleefully downing as much booze as they can despite Prohibition still being in effect.
The Charles’ schnauzer Asta is along for the ride but she doesn’t become cloyingly cutesy like the dog would sometimes do in the Thin Man movie series.
The “lovable lushes” aspect of Nick and Nora’s characters is a huge part of their charm, along with their sparkling, witty banter. Readers get to feel as brilliant and sexy as the two leads as they fend off unwanted advances, sling snappy dialogue and interact with shady criminal types plus assorted New York entertainers and Old Money families.
At one post-Christmas party the Charleses and the other guests are being entertained by the piano playing of a man called “Levi Oscant,” obviously a pastiche of the one and only Oscar Levant. Though the hostess of that party has scored a social coup by having him entertain at her party, Nora undercuts that triumph by engaging the celebrity in bitchy gossip about that hostess.
Nora Charles has the time of her life slumming with “Nicky dear” as she tags along with him on his investigation. Outside of Tuppence of Tommy & Tuppence fame it’s hard to think of a braver, smarter or ballsier woman than Nora in detective fiction of the era.
As Nick reluctantly helps the NYPD investigate, additional dead bodies turn up and Nick himself ultimately becomes a suspect. As always, Hammett tells the tale masterfully and it’s fun for the reader to juggle the alibis and motives of the many potential murderers.
The list of suspects includes the late Julia Wolf’s many criminal friends, a former rival of inventor Wynant and Wynant’s family members like his scheming ex-wife, cold, cunning son and his sexy, manipulative daughter. Needless to say everybody lies to Nick and Nora at least once but ultimately the tangled mess is unraveled and the mystery solved.
The banter and the boozing never stop at any time along the way, and the backdrop of 1930s Yuletide parties at shady speakeasies and swank hotels alike make this an irresistible period piece for someone like me.
Obviously, most of the fun of any well-crafted murder mystery lies in the gradual stripping away of multiple layers of deceit so I’ve provided only the bare bones of the plot of The Thin Man. I don’t want to spoil the fun for any first-time readers.
The ideal time for a cinematic remake of The Thin Man has long passed. Looking back, I think Warren Beatty and Annette Bening would have made an ideal Nick and Nora. They should have struck while the iron was hot and took on the roles right after their success in 1991’s Bugsy.
With the proven chemistry between the pair, with Beatty’s obsessive attention to period detail and with the holiday setting that 1992 Thin Man remake could have joined the first two Die Hard movies as standard Christmastime viewing.
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