The Thin Man, by Dashiell Hammettt (Knopf, 1933, 201 pages, $13.95)
Did you know Dashiell Hammet was from Maryland? And that Allentown makes an appearance in The Thin Man? And that Hagerstown is mentioned in Chapter 14?
I’ll wager you DID know that Asta the dog played a part in The Thin Man – a very small one, in the book. Smaller than in the MGM movie series (of seven) starring Myrna Loy and William Powell. Did you know Asta once bit Miss Loy?
Times change. Just as dogs no longer ride in crates on top of cars, this dog trainer/book reviewer was surprised to read on page 150, “Let’s send the pup downstairs for the night and turn in and do our talking after we’ve had some rest.” Do wealthy dogs staying in New York City hotels not sleep in their people’s hotel suites but perhaps in a kennel downstairs in the hotel? At least in 1932?
I grew up with Nick and Nora and, of course, Asta (a Schnauzer), in the TV series* of the 1950s (35 episodes) with Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk. I knew they were wealthy but reading The Thin Man has told me Nick was 41, Nora was 26 and independently wealthy – the reason Nick left his job as a crackerjack detective in New York City to run Nora’s business enterprises from San Francisco.
Delightfully Light Murder (with Martinis, of Course)
Nick and Nora’s crowd often stayed up til 4 or 5 a.m. and even downed a couple of drinks before breakfast. I guess that was all the rage in 1932! Even some of the writing was a bit different.
Will the Real Thin Man Please Stand Up?
I recently found out that Nick was not the thin man but now I know ‘the rest of the story’ from the original book. The antagonist was a very thin man, very thin indeed. “Nobody sees him come, nobody sees him go. What was that joke about a guy being so thin he had to stand in the same place twice to throw a shadow?” (page 190) So, the nickname and titles probably come not from the protagonist but from his first case.
Nick keeps telling everyone throughout the book that he is not working on the case, but he acts like he is and the police and the family in question continually ask him to become involved and take the case. (He eventually solves it.)
You may have to reread some passages due to the fast-paced repartee (if watching the movie or TV series, be ready with the replay button!)
For those of you who like stories composed primarily of conversation (and short chapters), you will love The Thin Man. For those of you who like convoluted plots and speakeasies, it’s for you, too.
You will also come across a lot of ‘swell’s’ and even ‘a moving picture’ (the movie theater) and police beating up the (supposedly) bad guys that continued on into the 50s with Dragnet, the radio show. The noun, dido, however, still has me stumped. And then there’s cuspidor, and vetch, and noodle, and cracking down, and folding seats in taxis (I remember those!), and mugg, and earysipelas!
When Nick and Nora Charles come to NYC over Christmas to escape their families, they stay in a Park Avenue hotel where the phone is in the bedroom not the living room and, without a kitchen, they ust eat out or order in for meals – and take taxis everywhere.
And, Finally, the Plot
A wealthy inventor escapes to the countryside to work alone. His divorced wife, her new husband, and her two young adult children deplete their money supply and depart Europe for New York City to ask the wealthy inventor for more. His secretary is murdered and everyone is a suspect. The family is so totally dysfunctional that everyone is a suspect at one time or another – except for the one who actually did it and another and another. The plot goes ‘round and ‘round with everyone implicating themselves and fighting and hitting and getting drunk and partying and partying and partying. It finally accelerates towards the end and will convince you to watch both the movie and TV series of The Thin Man!
*Asta became a wire-haired fox terrier on TV