Friday, September 23, 2011

The Thin Man: Asta is a Girl!

I have an interest in classic detective fiction and so in July I picked up a copy of Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man. I’ve never read any Hammett but like everyone else, I like the films that were made of The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man. Hammett, by the way, did not have anything to do with the sequels to The Thin Man. But that’s all by the way.

For someone who’s seen the movie but not read the book, there are surprises: Nick Charles is Greek! Asta is a girl! Nora doesn’t give Nick a pistol for Christmas! It’s a good bet that Nick is drunk if he’s awake! Though he also manages Nora’s inherited business, buying stock in gold mines and selling off failing companies. All of which is a load of fun.

The narrative is almost entirely dialogue and what action there is comes across as stage direction, so it reads like a play. A breathless, very talky play with clever banter and a lot of sass. The Thin Man is a classic two-corpse murder mystery, beginning with the discovery of one body and a second stiff to be produced toward the end of the second act. I’ve seen the movie plenty of times and so far it seems to hew pretty closely to the plot of the novel, so of course I know who the murderer is already. This lets me look at how the mystery and detection thereof is structured in the book. I can tell you that almost all of the action is nothing but misdirection. Here and there the actual murderer does something subtle that in no way points to guilt, but that’s in the background, behind a colorful and very active parade of bickering and suspicious activity by a large cast of loud and angry extras. Nick Charles, who repeatedly declares that he’s not investigating anything, asks a lot of questions and has dinner and drinks cocktails and sleeps very late, having breakfast while the rest of the world lunches, and thinks about the crime. He is not the sort of detective to visit a crime scene and scrabble about on hands and knees, searching for clues that have eluded the police. No, he wonders about motivations and character and asks Nora to mix another shaker of martinis. He does not appear to be working, nor particularly interested in solving the mystery. It’s a real page-turner and I expect to finish reading it tonight after work.

I am also reading The Golden Ass by Apuleius, which is a lot of fun. Greek tales of transformation and magic, mostly revolved around sexual relationships between men and women who haven’t been formally introduced. What larks. I’m reading the 1960 Jack Lindsay translation. Next week I’ll read some Portuguese literature.

Also, I just saw this about a remake of The Thin Man starring Johnny Depp. I am not sanguine about this affair.


  1. Whenever I read over the many books you're currently reading or will shortly be reading, I always marvel.

    How do you do it? Do you never sleep?

    I've been trying to get through Little Dorrit for a couple weeks. It's not that I don't like it - I love Dickens - I just can't find time.

  2. It takes me forever to read books, though. I got halfway through The Thin Man yesterday because I took a day off from work to let a repairman into the house, which allowed a rare couple of hours that I could devote to a book.

    I read in the morning on the bus to work, and at home after dinner (Mighty Reader is also a worshipper of books so we'll sit on the couch and read separate books, once in a while interrupting each other to read excerpts aloud; isn't that repulsively cute?). So maybe 2 hours a day for reading? We don't have cable and we watch just a couple of hours of TV a week, and we don't have kids. Luxury! Also, right now I'm not really working on a writing project, so I can read during lunch. More luxury! Next week I'll buckle down and continue with a first draft of a new project and then my reading will slow way down.

    There is no such thing as too much sleep.

  3. Haha, reading your comment, I think about if I had no kid how much more time I'd have to read uninterrupted. Let me tell you, my stack of unread literature would be much smaller. I wouldn't trade her for that, though, no matter how much I want to read. Still, I do miss being able to read as much as I'd like.

    I love Dashiell Hammett. And how cool is his name? Because it is. I first read The Maltese Falcon in college. We had a class centered around that book and film noir and I adored that class. I've read the book many times, but I have yet to pick up The Thin Man. Sounds like a divine read if it's anywhere near as well-done as Falcon.

    Darcy is now handing me marshmallows and chocolate chips. I think I need to go.

  4. Michelle: We'd all have more time to read if we lived in solitude, but that would be awful, right?

    This is the first time I've read any Hammett. It was pretty good, and the resolution of the crime was done much better here than in the film (which I love). Now I have to find a copy of Maltese Falcon.