I am quite the avid fan of Myrna Loy’s, and I am almost equally fanatical in my love of William Powell, so I naturally have had a strong affinity for the Thin Man series of films which started and epitomized their on screen charisma. Recently, however, I have had the opportunity for the first time to read Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man, on which the characters for the film series are based. I must say, I enjoyed the book even more than the films. Hammett’s story is much darker, racier, and grislier than the book, a product no doubt of the different expectations of the two media. Still it gives the story in the novel a fuller body, the weight of which Hammett throws at you with astonishing force. The characters outside of Nick and Nora are two-dimensional as seen through Nick’s eyes but at the same time, perhaps because of their antic qualities, startlingly lifelike. Nick and Nora, at the same time, for all their character depth seem strangely surreal by comparison.
The real delight in the book that cannot be gleaned from the films, however, is Hammett’s peculiar narrative style. On the one hand, the story is carried along almost entirely on the back of episodic dialogues between Nick and the myriad suspects in a way that is oddly reminiscent (at least to me with my training) of the philosophical dialogues of Plato or Hume. With Nick at the helm and a bungling horde of interlocutors not up to the task of sparring with him, however, the dialogues are less philosophical than they are comical, an ironic look at the way conclusions are truly reached. On the other hand, Hammett does not seem at all bothered to simply stop recording the dialogue. He frequently shifts from the actual content of speech to a third person summarization of what is being said in a way that is at once jarring and deeply revealing of Nick’s character as narrator.
My favorite aspect of the book was undoubtedly the way Hammett reversed my expectation of the relationship between the characters and the author. Typically, the author uses the narration to comment on the characters, but in The Thin Man it seems at times that the characters are using the narration to comment on the author. The book ends abruptly with Nora declaring, ostensibly to Nick, that “it’s all pretty unsatisfactory.” I cannot help but read in this a touch of self-referential derision as Hammett simply abandons the characters he has worked so hard to introduce to you. With that line, my sense of awe at his craft overpowered my frustration with being left wanting. That, in my opinion, is a powerful recommendation in itself.