Monday, August 10, 2009

The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett

Hammett is a big deal for me. Back in 1999 I went on a whirlwind tour through modern hard-boiled literature in an attempt to learn about the subject prior to writing about it. Up until then, I had been writing a bunch of James Bond copycat stories which I eventually found unsatisfying. With hard-boiled, I discovered I could write about the world I actually lived in, featuring people and places I knew. Hammett was one of the last writers I checked out, and he provided a revelation.

I won't go into Hammett's background here; biographical information is available in many areas. He's a big deal to me because his crisp and economical style of writing taught me to "keep it simple" and not get too bogged down in descriptions of places. He excelled at was his descriptions of people. In "Red Harvest", he painted the picture of a lady, Dinah Brand, wanted by every man in town, but her make-up was always a little off, her clothes askew, wrinkled, holey. She obviously didn't take care of herself. The description is so vivid she stays in your mind long after you've finished the book; in fact, she's more memorable than Brigid O'Shaughnessy in "The Maltese Falcon".

One thing about Hammett's background I will mention is that as the years went on, he wanted to write less and less about detectives and criminals. The reasons why are explained elsewhere (yes, I know this blog says I "explain it all" but that's just a cute title). Ultimately he didn't think a "good guy" could win the fight against the "bad guys", and that attitude shows in his last novel, "The Thin Man".

I didn't read "The Thin Man" for a long time because it was Hammett's last; I wanted to save it. Plus, I knew the mood and tone of the book, considering Hammett's attitude at the time, would be much darker than the other novels. Indeed it was, despite the movie version which paints the story as a comedy. He didn't intend "Thin" to be his last, but it almost reads that way. There's a sadness and touch of despair that follows the narrative. Nick Charles, the hero, a retired detective who wants nothing more to do with crime busting, is indeed going to solve the crime despite his verbal statements that he doesn't care who killed the titular thin man, but he knows revealing the murderer won't amount to much. He just wants another drink.

"The Thin Man" lingers for the wrong reasons. It's almost a suicide note. It's the end. Hammett would try and try but would write no more novels after "The Thin Man". (He helped his lover, Lillian Hellman, with her plays, and she would write nothing more after his death, but that doesn't count.) After five books and many, many short stories, Hammet had said everything he was able to say.

You cannot overlook "The Thin Man". It's brilliantly written. The lines are thin, like the victim in the story. You won't find much description or hoopdedoodle and you won't know anything more than Nick Charles wants you to know. He doesn't tell you his thoughts, and his words contradict his actions. That's the magic of the book. You're told one thing while seeing something else, and it's hard to look away, because you want the hero to save the day and set the wrong things right. But in the end, the hero doesn't care. When Sam Spade, in "The Maltese Falcon", busted the killer of his partner Miles, a man he didn't really like very much, he did it because when a man's partner is killed he has to do something about it, and it doesn't matter what your personal feelings for the killer are, you gotta hand 'em over. Spade was on a quest. Nick Charles is the opposite. He would say that sometimes you do things because you must, but you don't have to like it, and if you can get it over with quickly and get on with your life, so much the better.

"The Thin Man" lingers for the wrong reasons. That's why I like "Red Harvest" and "The Maltese Falcon" better. But Hammett was a true wordsmith who became better and better the more he wrote, and "The Thin Man" shows him at the top of the mountain. With that in mind, maybe it's not so bad he didn't write any more books.

He'll always be at the top of the mountain.

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