I recently finished reading Dashiel Hammett’s second-best-known detective story, The Thin Man. (See 5/21/10 posting for the first.) We are all familiar with the Thin Man mystery-comedy movie series starring William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles. The first in the series was made in 1934 in only two weeks on a low budget, but it became wildly popular, thanks largely to the chemistry between Powell and Loy. Nick is a retired detective who un-retires to solve a mystery. Nora is his heiress wife. Much of the comedy comes from Nick’s hardboiled old friends intruding in their high society lifestyle. Nora is a down-to-earth girl, despite her heiress background, and enjoys Nick’s friends. Hammett only wrote the first Thin Man novel; Hollywood knew a good thing when they had it and added five additional sequels on their own. There was even a short-lived TV series in 1957 starring Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk.
Nick is not your typical retiree. In the book, he says he is 41 and Nora is a considerably younger 26. He retired six years before when Nora’s father died soon after their marriage, leaving her with a lumber mill and a narrow-gauge railroad. So, he must have retired at age 35, like a professional athlete. Nick left his detective work to run the businesses, although they take zero amount of his time and are not mentioned again.
Like the characters in the Maltese Falcon, everyone lives in hotels. Perhaps many city people really did in those days, but it certainly helps move the plot along. The characters can quickly appear at each other’s residence and use the hotel staff to leave a message or find out where they have gone. (Personal information was freely given out back then.) Also, the detective never has to say, “I’ll solve the murder later. Right now I need to cut the grass before it rains.”
In both the book and the movie, it is obvious both Nick and Nora are dangerously alcoholic. It was funny then, but not now. The later movie sequels tone this down. Nick and Nora have what was then a modern marriage and openly flirt with others, but today that looks like a sure sign of future trouble.
But the real surprise is who the thin man is. Not Nick, as most assume, even though William Powell was on the thin side. The thin man is Clyde Wynant, an old acquaintance accused of murder that formed the core of the mystery.
Nora returned with two drinks and another question: “What’s he like?”
“Tall—over six feet—and one of the thinnest men I’ve ever seen.” Nick replies.
This is important in the plot because a decomposed body is found wearing large clothes to deflect suspicion it is Wynant. (It works for a while.) This character never appears again in the sequels, and the later sequel titles, such as The Thin Man Goes Home, certainly refer to Nick Charles as the thin man. Hollywood must have liked the catchy name and went along with the public confusion. And another point of trivia, Nick’s heritage is Greek. The book mentions this several times and explains his father changed the surname to Charles from Charalambides. Nora occasionally calls him “Mr. Charalambides” in mock formality. I assume this is to emphasize some personal characteristic of Nick’s, but I have no idea what the stereotype of Greek immigrants was at the time.
The pattern of this detective story is now familiar. We are given a plethora of seemingly unrelated facts, and, at the end, the detective gathers everyone together in one room and links the evidence so they point to just one person as the murderer, although the logic is so convoluted, I doubt even the most avid mystery fan could follow it the first time through. This ending is only in the movie version. In the book, most of the explanation is given to Nora alone in their bedroom after the bad guy has been dragged off by Nick’s police buddies (who apparently could follow the logic).
Best line in the movie:
NORA (Holding a newspaper): They say you got shot in the tabloids.
NICK: They’re lying! The bullet didn’t come anywhere near my tabloids.