Somehow I never saw this movie or read this book during my six-month crime noir kick in ninth grade (though I did read Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key around that time). But, boy, I’m glad that I’ve read it now.
The Thin Man is the last novel Hammett completed (though he started or pretended to start a half-dozen others) and it has the feel of being a parody of his other novellas and the 1930s crime genre in general. It is fabulously funny – as in, I couldn’t go two pages without trying to read something clever out loud to Ben. As in the protagonists, Nick and Nora Charles, have the most wonderful, fun, and loving time ever while they solve murders together. I’m talking about more drinking, more intrigue, more mysterious dames, and more witty dialogue than all of his other works put together.
Of course, these were my thoughts before reading the detailed chronology/short biography of Hammett in the back of the book. Surely, I thought while reading the novel, much of the humor comes from the ABSURD number of martinis, affairs, suspects, and speakeasys that clutter every page. But after reading about Dashiell Hammett’s life, it seems like this might have been his most realistic novel. His chonology includes, in between novel releases and movie adaptations, such phrases as “1931: drinks heavily and has many affairs.” “1920: serves as Pinkerton Operative.” “1947: moves in with daughter Mary Jane; both drink heavily.” “1953: Questioned by Senator McCarthy about donating royalties to the Communist Party.” “1932: Found guilty of battery and rape of actress Elise De Vianne.” “1934: Signs contract with MGM in October for a second movie in the Thin Man series. Drinks heavily.”
This chronology goes on for TEN PAGES and includes more affairs, benders, posh apartments, debt collectors, trials, political intrigue, and detective work than in an entire season of Law & Order and CSI put together.
It made me see the book a bit differently – to appreciate it even more, really. For Hammett to treat these subjects lightly – subjects that were at the very time tearing his life and career apart and pretty certainly not funny at all - give the book the feeling of a fantasy – a sort of fairy tale noir. As if Nick and Nora Charles lived in a parallel universe where “cutting the phlegm” with a few whiskeys in the morning is okay, where smooth talking can get you out of trouble with creditors and the law, and where bullets always only manage to graze and annoy you.
I like to imagine Hammett – with all of the drama of his life swirling around him – smiling and laughing as he wrote his novel. Just really having a good time. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I had a really good time reading it.