Friday, April 13, 2018

The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett

I once started reading The Thin Man, years ago, before getting distracted and leaving it aside. The film, of course, is a favourite, a perfect blend of film noir with domestic comedy in which the dark, sour tone of the storyworld is kept at bay with the crackling, affectionate snarkery between its two main characters.

Unfortunately, the book is nowhere near as cozy.

I knew to expect this from having read Paul Johnson's Intellectuals, which devotes a chapter to Hammett's long-term mistress, Lillian Hellman. Intellectuals is by way of being a hall of infamy, and neither Hellman nor Hammett come off very well in it.
Hammett was a very serious case of alcoholism. The success [The Maltese Falcon] enjoyed was perhaps the worst thing that could have happened to him; it brought him money and credit and meant he had little need to work. He was not a natural writer and seems to have found the creative act extraordinarily daunting. He did, after many efforts, finish The Thin Man (1934) which brought him even more money and fame, but after that he wrote nothing at all. He would hole up in a hotel with a crate of Johnnie Walker Red Label and drink himself into sickness. Alcohol brought about moral collapse in a man who seems to have had, at times, strong principles.
Johnson goes on to discuss Hammett's sporadic neglect of his estranged wife and children, who depended on him for support, his financial difficulties despite having made over two million dollars from his writing, his regular use of prostitutes, and the abuse and violence towards women ("Shortly after he met Hellman, he hit her on the jaw at a party and knocked her down"). Intellectuals is never a pleasant read, but its thesis is that knowing something of the seamy personal lives of influential people goes a long way to helping us interpret their works.

The Thin Man, which is dedicated to Lillian Hellman, is not a pleasant read either. Like the much better movie, it revolves around the efforts of Nick Charles, a retired private detective now enjoying a hard-drinking Christmas holiday in New York with Nora, his smart and wealthy young wife. As a private detective, Charles once handled a case for Clyde Wynant, the titular Thin Man, an eccentric and reclusive inventor. When Wynant disappears, his secretary is found murdered, and his daughter appeals to Nick for help in finding him. Who killed Julia Wolf? What secret is Wynant's ex-wife trying to hide? And will Nick ever succeed in convincing the entire population of New York that he's not working on the case?

The Thin Man is written as tersely as an Icelandic saga (which you'd better believe is jolly terse), but it focuses on dialogue rather than narrative. Something about this very understated, dialogue-heavy style makes it very difficult to recall much of the plot, which is complex. Then, the book is very dark. Despite being made before the Hays Code was introduced, the film brightens up the story considerably. For instance, in the film, young Dorothy Wynant wants to find her father because she's about to get married. In the book, she's depressed by her unbearable home life, thinks she might be going insane, has a destructive fling with a married man, and is looking for her father out of sheer desperation.

Another interesting, though subtle difference between book and film is the character of Nora herself. In the film, Nora is very much an equal partner to Nick in the investigation, and the whole secret of the film's charm is how the leads interact, their evident affection for each other masked by snark and slang. Some of their most memorable exchanges turn out to have been written for the film. Nora is much less important in the book, and though she's still a smart, attractive character, she seems less competent, and the relationship between her and Nick seems far less close-knit. The result is that in the film, while Nick and Nora were an island of boozy sanity in a dark world, in the book, they seem very much part of that same world. (In this, it reminded me of the difference between the film and book versions of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day).

One character, however, is far more vivid in the book, and that's Wynant's ex-wife, Mimi Jorgensen. I hadn't realised until I read the book that Mimi is the traditional hard-boiled femme fatale for this particular story. She's by turns violent, seductive, and sweet, but she's never, ever, honest. There's a fascinating description of her:
"The chief thing," I advised them, "is not to let her tire you out. When you catch her in a lie, she admits it and gives you another lie to take its place and, when you catch her in that one, admits it and gives you still another, and so on. Most people - even women - get discouraged after you've caught them in the third or fourth straight lie and fall back on either the truth or silence, but not Mimi. She keeps trying and you've got to be careful or you'll find yourself believing her, not because she seems to be telling the truth, but simply because you're tired of disbelieving her."
The "even women" crack may be somewhat revealing of how Hammett felt about women in general. Listen to this Paul Johnson quote:
It is a curious fact that the devastation caused by lies, particularly female lies, fascinated both Hellmann and Hammett; the lies of the woman are the threads which link together the brilliant complexities of The Maltese Falcon. When drunk, Hammett lied like any other alcoholic; when sober, he tended to be a stickler for exactitude, even if it was highly inconvenient. While he was around, he tended to exercise some restraint on Hellman's fantasies. She, by contrast, was both obsessed by lies and perpetrated them.
I note that this particular chapter of Intellectuals is titled "Lies, Damned Lies and Lillian Hellman" and chronicles many of them. It might be interesting to wonder if by dedicating The Thin Man to Hellman, Hammett was memorialising the way he felt about her by casting her as the smart love interest for its alcoholic ex-detective hero, or as the congenital liar whose obfuscations drive much of the plot, or both - or neither. But that's all speculation and only Hammett could tell us the truth of that.

I didn't particularly enjoy The Thin Man. It was too dialogue-heavy and complex, too dark and embittered, to make a pleasant read. And it was too insubstantial to make a challenging read. The movie is much more pleasant and a good deal wittier, but there's one thing I can definitely say for the novel: it makes a Gatsby-esque case for not romanticising the past. The movie is a charming fantasy, but the novel is probably a lot closer to the real thing, and it certainly does a better picture of showing you exactly what kind of person its author really was.

You can find The Thin Man on Amazon or the Book Depository.

The film starring William Powell and Myrna Loy is a lot of fun, and you should definitely watch it!

1 comment:

xavier said...

Suzannah

I enjoyed the Thin man. I looked at the dialogue as a throwack to the the late medieval/early modern stories which had dialogue that wouldn't shut up. Which i love
I'd seen the movies but never read the book. I finally read it and I liked it even it it wasn't his best novel. If you read closely you see some references to CONOPS Nick worked for the agency (and possibly with/for CONOPS) which might explain the latent grimdark
Also Nick is overwieight while the movie he's thin

I agree with you that the noir period of the 20-30s was based 8n very real corruption and violence. So while the stories are interestingbto read they weren't cool like in the movies.

xavier

LinkWithin

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...