Nick and Nora Charles are two of the more iconic characters in mystery creation. What is fascinating about this reality is that they were only featured in this, the last of Dashiell Hammett’s novels. The Thin Man, published in 1934 – introduces Nick and Nora. The book made such an impact on popular culture that it spawned a TV series and movie. Reading it, I am not sure if the book is precisely a literary classic – but it is certainly a superior page turner. The book certainly is better than the potboiler bilge that Dan Brown and John Grisham pump out in this age, but it also stands as very much a popular culture artifact. Unlike a lot of “classic reads” (which often connote schoolwork), this is a pretty fun breezy read – that doubles as both a worthwhile mystery as well as something of a sideways comedy.
The novel, set in New York, involves Nick Charles, a former detective who married into Nora’s family for love – and money. He is now in the upper class twit tier of society – although he always hints of his former life. Into their lives wanders Dorothy Wynant, the daughter of an eccentric scientist Nick had done some detective work for – apparently the scientist’s assistant has turned up dead. The scientist, Clyde Wynant, in fact never appears in the book – he communicates via telegram and through his attorney Herbert MacAulay, but he exists as a spectre – and given the weirdo depiction of him, the obvious subject. Nick does not want to get involved, but suddenly is pulled in by forces from his past – and soon enough he finds himself tagging along with the cops in a couple of cases, being a private dick sort of management consultant.
They mystery is sufficiently interesting, but while the plotting is undistinguished (any student of the law of the conservation of characters can probably figure out where this is head), where Hammett does great is in atmosphere and imagery. In the depiction of sad sack basket case Dorothy, her not so sad sack but crazy mother, her dark, lurking brother – the Wynants would make for its own sort of sitcom, as long as David Lynch were developing it. We get a great sense of smoke, color and place here – and it feels like we know these people. Indeed the witty repartee between Nick and Nora and the comedy of the upper class twits is the highlight. She is a very funny drunk (everyone drinks all the time – I am not sure how they managed to stay awake long enough to solve crimes) and is a useful foil for Nick. Ultimately, it is hard to call The Thin Man great literature, but it is superior popcorn – and what’s wrong with that?