Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Tales From the Discount Bin: The Thin Man

Whenever I start reading a new book, particularly by an author previously unknown to me, it almost always takes me a chapter or two to get in sync with the writing style. I blamed this phenomena on my inability to really get into the last book I read, A Brand New World. But that continued past the first few chapters, and throughout the book I just couldn't really get inside the story. The normal immersion into the fantasy eluded me, and I found myself reading entire passages two, maybe three times to suss out the meaning. Eventually, rather than attribute this to an unskilled author, I laid some of the blame on my inexperience with writing of that time period. I've read books from the turn of the century, and books from the 40s, but not many books from the 20s and 30s. I thought, perhaps, that the style of that period was so alien to me I was missing something in the book. And then I read Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man, and dashed that theory to pieces. Dashiell Hammett is probably the most well known author I've written about so far, and certainly he belongs to a class almost completely separate from the other writers I've covered, but he still falls into the general theme of hard boiled pulp fiction. I'd never read anything by him before, although I had seen a few of the Thin Man movies.

For those out there who haven't read the book or seen the movies, Nick Charles is a retired detective. He used to be quite well known and sought after, but for awhile now he's been focusing mainly on running the kinda vague businesses of his new wife, Nora. But really this involves him making a few calls to an accountant here and there, and drinking copious amounts of liquor. The fact that he's retired doesn't stop anyone from thinking that Nick is in town to investigate the murder of a scientist's secretary/mistress, and despite his numerous denials, Nick is eventually roped into helping solve the crime. Complicating matters is the fact that only a few people have seen the scientist in months, and his interaction with the outside world occurs through letters he sends his lawyer.

The movie is pretty faithful to the book, so I wasn't too surprised by any of the big reveals, but a few things were different. For starter Nick is a much more passive observer in the novel, and he doesn't do much field work as a detective. In the movie he goes out and investigates a few leads, but in the book he mainly talks to people as they come up to him, and occasionally nudges the police in the right direction. Personally I find the book version to be much more impressive, mentally, but I understand the need to change things up. It's not very visually appealing to have your hero sit around and do nothing while other people carry the story in a movie.

Now, if there's one thing the Thin Man series is known for, it's the high-functioning alcoholic couple at the center; Nick and Nora Charles. The movie's casting was perfect(few people have mined a drunken state for deadpan humor as well as William Powell, see his drunken scene in My Man Godfrey for another example), and in both the film and book Nick and Nora are the only stable element in a sea of crazy characters. Actually, crazy may be too light a word. Some of these people are downright psychotic. The darkness of this book really surprised me, considering it's generally light and humorous tone. Nick and Nora may jibe playfully with each other and spend their days idly getting wasted, but the supporting characters are frighteningly off kilter. Take Gilbert Wynant, son of the titular Thin Man, who's detached curiosity about people's behavior borders on the sociopathic, as he does everything from the comparatively minor steaming open envelopes and reading his family's mail to dosing his sister with morphine to witness firsthand what it does to people. There's a bit of an incestuous undertone in the Wynant family, something below the surface that gets a single straightforward mention towards the end of the book.

I find it to be a bit paradoxical that my ability to write about something fluctuates with how well I enjoyed it; I find it difficult to write about entertainment that I love, but fairly easy to write about things I hate. And so it is with this one; I really enjoyed it, and have picked up a few Hammett books to add to the pile, but I have very little to say about this. It was fast and breezy, and very fun to read. I want Nick and Nora's relationship, but I don't drink so I think I may be out of luck.

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