RARA-AVIS: The Thin Man

From: Michael Robison ( miker_zspider@yahoo.com)
Date: 20 Dec 2004

I finished up Hammett's novels last month with THE THIN MAN. I had expected a tough but somewhat lighthearted comedy, but it didn't strike me like that at all. Instead, the tone seemed more in line with writers of the Lost Generation. Drunken celebration and apathetic nihilism serves as a thin veneer over a moral crisis bordering on hysteria.

The couple Nick and Nora are on vacation in New York City over the Christmas holiday when a murder occurs. Although those around him expect him to actively work the case, Nick refuses. Nick has married rich a few years back and is retired from detective work. He spends a few brief moments a week tending to financial details, and spends the rest of his time drinking and socializing. Hammett goes to great pains in the plot to bring Nick in contact with all the people he needs to question without having him appear to actively pursue the case.

A common use for an author's oeuvre is as psychological fodder to explore his state of mind. I am uncomfortable with this approach because it leads literature down a deadend alley ending at the author's psyche (rather than being a sweeping rumination on the state of mankind), but it is hard not to compare Nick's situation with Hammett's.

Willeford found THE THIN MAN bad to the point of unreadable. My reaction was not nearly so negative. In its own subtle way, it is just as dramatic as RED HARVEST. For all the witty repartee, it is a sad book about a once great detective who no longer believes in the cause, who no longer gives a damn.

There were a few things I didn't like about the book. Hammett is too heavy-handed with his build-up of Nick's history. Nick was a great detective. Nice was a war hero. Nick was respected by cops and crooks alike. I realize that Hammett has to build up Nick's past to effectively show how far he has fallen, but he overdid it.

The other thing I didn't like is that a detective story is simply not a very good vehicle for portraying the self-destructive apathy that Nick carries like a consuming disease. It is a tired tradition that the private detective shows little interest in taking the case, but he eventually is drawn into it and struggles fiercely to see it to the end. There is no transformation like this in THE THIN MAN. Nick remains apathetic to the end, and even though Hammett does a decent job of using coincidence and convenience to parade the suspects before Nick, Nick's hardcore apathy and the mystery plot mix like oil and water.


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This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : 20 Dec 2004 EST