I have discovered a love affair with the hard-boiled detective fiction from the 1920s and 1930s. The stories are snappy, the dialogue is pithy and sometimes full of colourful, outdated idioms.
The Thin Man fits in beautifully, showing all of these features.
We meet Nick Charles, retired detective, and his younger, glamorous wife Nora in New York for the Christmas season. While waiting in a speakeasy for Nora to finish her shopping he is approached by a young lady, Dorothy Wynant, the daughter of a man for whom he did some work eight years earlier. And there starts the downward spiral of the Charles’ quiet Christmas in New York.
Meeting Dorothy eventually embroils the couple in multiple murders, an absolutely dysfunctional family and some very interesting police and insalubrious ex-convicts.
We are taken through the process of trying to find Dorothy’s father, Clyde Miller Wynant, thought to be responsible for the murder of his assistant Julia Wolf. He is the eponymous Thin Man of the title. We learn all about Clyde’s manipulative ex-wife Mimi and her new husband Chris Jorgensen, and his two very odd children – Dorothy and Gilbert. Throw in Wynant’s lawyer Herbert Macauley, police detective John Guild and ex-con Studsy Burke and an array of other minor characters and we have a very colourful story in the making.
It is quite an eye-opener looking in to life in the 1930s with the speakeasy culture and the pithy language. The idea of characters that wake up at lunchtime and stay out till the middle of the morning is quite decadent in an era of deprivation and poverty.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this and at a little over 200 pages in my Penguin Classic version, it was fairly quick even for a slow reader like myself. I certainly plan to read the remainder of Hammett’s books on the 1001 Book List.
To give you a taste of the style of writing and the sorts of characters to be found in the novel here is an excerpt of Mimi Jorgensen (the ex-Mrs Clyde Wynant) trying to manipulate Nick Charles.
‘Nick, what can they do to you for concealing evidence that somebody’s guilty of murder?’
‘Make you an accomplice – accomplice after the fact is the technical term – if they want.’
‘Even if you voluntarily change your mind and give them the evidence?’
‘They can. Usually they don’t.’
She looked around the room as if to make sure there was nobody else there and said: ‘Clyde killed Julia. I found proof and hid it. What’ll they do to me?’
‘Probably nothing except give you hell – if you turn it in. He was once your husband: you and he are close enough together that no jury’d be likely to blame you for trying to cover him up – unless, of course, they had reason to think you had some other motive.’
She asked coolly, deliberately: ‘Do you?’
‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘My guess would be that you had intended to use this proof of his guilt to shake him down for some dough as soon as you could get in touch with him, and that now something else has come up to make you change your mind.’
She made a claw of her right hand and struck at my face with her pointed nails. Her teeth were together, her lips drawn far back over them.
I caught her wrist. ‘Women are getting tough,’ I said, trying to sound wistful. ‘I just left one that heaved a skillet at a guy.’
Well worth the effort and a nice slice of early 20th Century writing.
Happy Reading everyone.