A review of The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett

Reviewed by P.P.O. Kane

The Thin Man
By Dashiell Hammett
Penguin Classics, February 2011
ISBN: 9780141194608

To all intents and purposes The Thin Man, originally published in 1934, was Hammett’s last novel, written before writer’s block – or whatever it was that stopped him putting pen to paper – took hold. True, Woman in the Dark, a novella, came out in 1951; but its first appearance in print was as a three-part serial in Liberty magazine in 1933. So that one doesn’t really count.

On rereading The Thin Man, what struck me most was that it is much darker, more messed up than I remembered it. It is mainly about an unhappy, dysfunctional family, the Jorgensens, and how they – Dorothy, Gilbert and Mimi – fight amongst themselves and tear each other apart. Another character, Quinn, a womaniser trapped in a joyless marriage, is a stockbroker and not a very good one; he loses money for his clients, including Hammett’s detective Nick Charles: a small reminder that the novel was written when the world was in similar economic straits to our own.

There’s a lot to enjoy about the novel, not least the mystery: Hammett generally wrote tightly plotted novels and, in that respect, The Thin Man satisfies in spades. The banter between Nick Charles and his wife is also very enjoyable and his wisecrack about a man needing a shot of whiskey in the morning to ‘break the phlegm’ is one that most men will identify with.

Casting a long look at Charles’ relationship with Guild, a cop, will also add to your appreciation of the novel: it goes from respect to suspicion to a workable wariness. Hammett’s mastery of the American vernacular is evident throughout (the novel is about 90 percent dialogue) but especially pronounced in chapter 22, which is set in a speakeasy. This scene could have come straight out of a screwball comedy, it’s so bizarre, kookie and entertaining. As to the digression regarding cannibalism (in chapter 13), I confess that I still can’t make head or tail of it, or relate it to the rest of the novel. Perhaps that’ll come when I revisit the book in a few years’ time.

For now, I’ll content myself with the admittedly unoriginal judgement that The Thin Man is one of the classic PI novels, the template for much that would follow in the genre. You could characterise this template as the melding of the hard-boiled mystery (which Hammett had done much to invent) and screwball comedy, with the good old American idiom as the glue; Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely, to give but one example, is cast from the same mould.

About the reviewer: P.P.O. Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and you can reach him at ludic@europe.com