“How do you feel?”
“Terrible. I must have gone to bed sober.”
Few runs can compare with it: five novels in five years, lean and mean books that exited the ring with victory assured: no one afterward could say that hard-boiled novels couldn’t be great art, at least nobody worth taking seriously. Then, just forty years old and for reasons still speculated about and still unknown, he stopped writing. The Thin Man was final book.
The protagonist is Nick Charles, a private detective remarkably perceptive and focused, considering the vast quantities of booze he swallows. Despite his instincts, he finds himself (and his wisecracking wife, Nora) pulled into a murder investigation.
As is often the case in hard-boiled fiction, the plot doesn’t matter much (and, indeed, can be hard to follow). The real heart of the book lies in everything but the story: the quiet scenes that erupt into violence; the half-feral men and women Charles encounters, so inwardly roiling.
Hammett writes sparely, and when he remembers to he writes well. There are vast arid plains of prose, though. His dialogue, at best, strikes the reader as both surprising and true, idiosyncratic and revealing. At other times, his speakers appear to be as bored with the twists and turns as I was.
Still, for all its unevenness, The Thin Man continues to earn its place on the shelf. There are scenes that disturb even now. To read them is to look through a keyhole at something you’re not sure you want to see.
And beyond that, this novel, among the other four Hammett produced, served as a model for other writers, notably a hungry genius, Chicago-born, by the name of Raymond Chandler.