Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Book Review: The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett

One of the things about coming to the crime fiction scene so late in my life is that I know the clichés before I actually get to their origin point. The same is true for films, too. When I finally saw “Casablanca” in my 24th year of life, I was amazed at how many phrases/scenes were originally from that movie. It was fun but it lost a little because I had seen cartoon characters utter certain lines for laughs, not human characters saying those lines like they meant it.

When I first decided to read Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man, I knew enough of the book to know that the stars of the show were Nick and Nora Charles. I am a child of the 1980s. As such, certain things are ingrained in my head and I bring them to every new adventure I go on. With The Thin Man, “Moonlighting” and “Hart to Hart” were the things that moved past Star Wars miscellanea and rare music trivia to set up shop at the forefront of my brain. There they sat, ready to divulge some little chunk of knowledge that might prove useful with my new book.

Honestly, I was disappointed. With those two TV shows in my head—and the relationship between the respective couples active in my memory—I read The Thin Man waiting for the book to be like those shows I remembered. It didn’t happen. Granted, the book was published in 1934, but I expected a little more involvement from Nora. There are large chunks of the book where she’s relegated to their hotel room while Nick, the former PI, goes off and solves the case. True, Nick and his cop pal, Guild, go to places a socialite like Nora wouldn’t want to go to, but still, I’d have thought she’d be in more scenes. And take a look at that cover. Glamor and intrigue ooze from the cover painting. Didn't find much in the prose.

The story itself is light but not in a bad way. Much of the action is relayed to Nick or Nora by other characters telling a story. As a modern writer whose mantra is ‘show don’t tell,’ some of the scenes were annoying. The dialogue between Nick and Nora was fun and the reader, William Dufris, does a remarkable job of speaking in multiple female voices.

Another preconceived notion I had going in was a direct result of an earlier Hammett novel, Red Harvest. In that novel, much blood is shed. I kind of expected some more blood but I guess The Thin Man was something of a cozy in hard-boiled clothing.

I can’t help but wonder how it was that I knew Nick and Nora Charles before I read the book. The Thin Man was Hammett’s last novel but there were something like six films made. Perhaps that is where their fame emerges. I have the movie and I plan on watching it this week.

What I Learned As A Writer: As previously mentioned, 'show don't tell' should still suffice as the fundamental mantra for any writer. Additionally, for this, my least favorite Hammett novel to date (I haven’t read The Glass Key yet), frankly, I’d like to do a better job. I hate to write that because Hammett is a giant in the crime fiction field. Red Harvest and The Maltese Falcon were much more enjoyable to me. But I do think there is room in the world for a modern take on the husband-wife crime-solving team. It will be fun to try.

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