The Thin Man
By Dashiell Hammett
Published in 1934 by Alfred A. Knopf
One-Sentence Summary: Ex-detective Nick Charles and his socialite wife Nora find their Christmas holiday interrupted when Nick is pulled into the investigation of a former acquaintance’s disappearance.
How I Found It: I was inspired to read the book after catching a marathon of The Thin Man film series a few months ago.
The Setting: Manhattan, early 1930s.
The Narrative: First person limited. Very limited- Nick does not tell us everything he’s thinking.
The Style: The novel is hard-boiled detective fiction. Hammett doesn’t give a word more than necessary. I tweak wordiness in most novels I read, but I found The Thin Man to be pleasantly unalterable.
The Title: The title refers to the missing inventor Clyde Wynant, who is said to be tall and thin.
The Characters: Perceptive, middle-aged, retired detective Nick; his fun-loving younger wife, Nora; the wacky and deceptive Wynant family. Despite the Prohibition, these characters drink or talk about drinking as much as characters on Bewitched.
Themes: Assumed identities, lies, doubles
The Best: The best thing about The Thin Man is that the dialogue is so rich. I also enjoyed that the chapters were typically only 2-6 pages long: I appreciate frequent stopping points as they encourage me to read “just one more chapter.”
The Worst: The worst thing about the novel, for me, is that I am not a great fan of detective fiction. The Thin Man is the first classic detective novel I have ever read, and while I enjoyed it, that was largely due to the humor.
Of Note: Dashiell Hammett was a World War I veteran and a Pinkerton investigator before he became a writer. He also wrote the novels Red Harvest, The Maltese Falcon, and The Glass Key before his career as a screenwriter. He is said to have based the characters of Nick and Nora on himself and his longtime partner Lillian Hellman, herself the author of screenplays and plays, including The Children’s Hour.
Availability: In print and on Amazon Kindle.
The Thin Man
Released May 23, 1934
Directed by W. S. Van Dyke
Produced by MGM
Review: I love The Thin Man movie for two reasons: the lead actors and the writing. William Powell and Myrna Loy are at their funniest together, and this particular movie shows why. The writing speaks for itself:
“Say listen, is he working on a case?”
“Yes, he is.”
“A case of scotch. Pitch in and help him.”
“What’s that man doing in my drawers?”
“Waiter, will you serve the nuts? I mean, will you serve the guests the nuts?”
Some of the funniest scenes from the series are on Youtube:
Differences: Asta the dog is changed from a female schnauzer to a male Wire Fox Terrier, and the age gap between Nick and Nora is smaller. There aren’t many variances in plot between the book and the movie. Dorothy Wynant is close to her father in the movie while in the book she hadn’t seen him in years. Clyde Wynant is told of Dorothy’s engagement in the opening scene of the film, and it is his absence that prompts the investigation.
Cast Includes: William Powell, Myrna Loy, Maureen O’Sullivan, Cesar Romero, and Skippy the dog as Asta.
Awards: The Thin Man was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, but It Happened One Night starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert took the statuette home. Both of the films feature witty dialogue and lead performers who have chemistry and comedic timing. The Thin Man was also nominated for Oscars for Best Actor (William Powell, who lost to Clark Gable for It Happened One Night), Best Director (W. S. Van Dyke, who lost to Frank Capra for It Happened One Night), and Best Writing-Adaptation (Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, who lost to Robert Riskin for… you’ll never guess… It Happened One Night).
Of Note: The subsequent films in the series all feature variations of this title, and they sometimes refer to William Powell, who was 6’ and thin.
Availability: The entire collection of Thin Man movies is available on DVD, or the first movie can be purchased separately. I have seen all but the last one, and the least of the Thin Man movies is still better than the average movie from the 30s/40s- or today.
Leonard Maltin Rating: 4/4 stars
Remake: A new adaptation of The Thin Man is being planned and will star Johnny Depp.
Next on Reel Old Reads: Stars in My Crown by Joe David Brown.