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.