Retro review–Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man, and a TCM marathon of Nick, Nora, and Asta for New Year’s Eve

Review by C.J. Bunce

Is there a better way you can think of for New Year’s Eve than spend it with Nick and Nora Charles and their spunky dog Asta?  If you haven’t met them yet, read on, or just check out the TCM marathon tomorrow featuring Dashiell Hammett’s iconic trio as played by William Powell, Myrna Loy, and Skippy.  Find the amiable, put-upon, imbibing hilarity and forced sleuthing–and much more–with 1934’s “Pre-Code” movie The Thin Man, followed by After the Thin Man (1936), Another Thin Man (1939), Shadow of the Thin Man (1941), The Thin Man Goes Home (1945), and Song of the Thin Man (1947), beginning tomorrow morning at 8:15 a.m. Central on TCM tomorrow all day–appropriately on New Year’s Eve.

But where did it all begin?  In Hammett’s 1934 novel The Thin Man.

First off, the “Thin Man” in the title of the series refers not to Nick Charles (short for the Greek name Charalambides), but the target of a murder investigation in the first novel.  The forty-something Nick (in his second marriage) stumbles into old acquaintances on Christmas Eve when he and his twenty-something wife Nora and Schnauzer dog Asta return to New York City where Nick was once a private investigator, the couple on vacation from their busy life running Nora’s inherited businesses back in San Francisco, and otherwise living the good life.  The couple really just wants to drink their next glass of hard liquor and enjoy the same kinds of New York City sights a visitor would go for in any other year that wasn’t 2020.  It all culminates on New Year’s Eve as Nick unmasks the murderer–and the victim.

A damsel in distress arrives from Nick’s days in New York before he met Nora.  The young and attractive Dorothy Wynant, daughter of a former client of sorts, hopes Nick will help her search for her missing father.  Soon another woman is found dead, and Dorothy’s father is the chief suspect.  Where is Mr. Wynant and who killed the dead woman?

The good news for anyone who has seen the Academy Award-nominated film for Best Picture is that the novel is sufficiently different, so you’re likely to keep stuck to your seat for the entire ride.  That’s thanks to Dashiell Hammett, the renowned mystery and noir crime author who also penned The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key, Red Harvest, and The Dain Curse, along with dozens of short stories.  There’s only one Thin Man novel and four short stories, with six movies continuing the characters’ exploits forward, including scripts for After the Thin Man and Another Thin Man.  Hammett’s genius is in his dialogue, specifically his banter between a couple that cares for each other and knows each other so well that jealousy or the potential for wandering eyes, even among a chorus of “pretty people,” is simply not part of their design.

Billed as a comedy mystery, the novel The Thin Man, Hammett’s final novel, is in truth pure mystery, hard-boiled, genre-defining, private-eye fiction.  The comedy component is found in the laugh-out-loud pokes and barbs, much lighter than that of Beatrice and Benedick, all between a seemingly never-ending–and comical–round of drinking, e.g., before they get out of bed, after being shot in the chest, every moment between arriving at the next bar or returning to their temporary home at a posh hotel.  If the novel is your first exposure to the couple, you might get the wrong idea as Nick early on punches Nora in the face, knocking her unconscious.  But it’s not a recurring thing; he only does it to save her from an oncoming mobster with a gun, in a shoot-the-hostage type of rescue attempt.  Practically every scene has similar first-time, ahead-of its-time moments that are truly surprising, considering many are found for the first time in the genre (like the very mystery of the words, “the doorbell rang”).  It will be hard to believe these scenes were concocted in the early 1930s, but here they are–another achievement in Hammett’s writing.  Readers not familiar with the Roaring Twenties and the end of Prohibition, where the novel is set, may be surprised to find far more cocktail references than in an Ian Fleming novel (not arriving for another two decades).  

Not quite a perfect novel (the final chapters feel a bit slammed together in a quick resolution), it’s the very idea and dialogue of Nick and Nora–and a cute, active little pup–that clearly stuck with readers and movie audiences.  For those that watch the movies before reading the novel, it will be difficult to separate your vision of Nick and Nora from Powell and Loy.  It’s as if the roles were written for these incredible actors, who unfortunately never won an acting Oscar.  There’s something that conjures that authenticity of a long-married couple that early audiences watched in the likes of George Burns and Gracie Allen.  Behind the scenes we’d learn the real “smarts” of the team was Allen, who only played the ditsy blonde role.  In Hammett’s novel, Nora typically takes the back seat in the sleuthing department, but like Allen in many of the comedy duo’s best acts, she sometimes steps in with the most clever final analysis and deductions.  The reader may wish there were more in Hammett’s novel, because every time Nora speaks it really is lined in gold, and who couldn’t wish for more?  But can you visualize the characters without seeing Powell and Loy?  That’s the challenge.

A true mystery classic that is not a bit dated, but surprisingly modern and completely riveting, pick up Hammett’s original crime novel The Thin Man, now available here at Amazon in a shiny trade edition with vintage poster art cover from Vintage Books.  And don’t forget to set your DVR for the marathon of The Thin Man, beginning at 8:15 a.m. Central tomorrow, New Year’s Eve, on TCM.

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