Sunday, 11 January 2009

The Thin Man - Dashiell Hammett

In many senses a standard mystery tale, this stands head, shoulders, and a goodly length of torso above most other books of that genre. It is not just Hammett’s superb writing that elevate this work (although that would be enough on its own), it is the sense that the author has relaxed into his work – paradoxically so as this was his last completed novel.

There are other aspects to the work that make it such a wonderful read. The central characters, Nick and Nora Charles, are a superb creation (and a great deal more convincing than the movie versions). Thought to be based in part on Hammett and Lillian Hellman, there is a genuine rapport between the two with a sufficient edge of tension to make them realistic. The dysfunctional Wynant family is sharply observed, and the minor characters are that rare combination of grotesque and believable.

Nick Charles, once a detective, is drawn into a murder investigation against his will. He is happily retired, helping his wife manage her inheritance. But he has not lost his skills or his tough attitude to life. Acting as a catalyst to official investigations, he helps to solve the mystery and unmask the murderer. Along the way, we are treated to some wonderful scenery, great characters, confident plotting, and writing that is mature, assured, and unfussy.

As an adjunct, I read this in the Library of America edition of the Complete Novels (which I bought to replace my ageing paperbacks). This series of books (the idea derived from the French Bibliothèque de la Pléiade) is a real treat and excellent value. They are authoritative editions of an author’s work, built to last (acid free paper, solidly bound in hardback), and great value. It’s a shame we don’t have something like this in the UK. It would be a much more sensible thing for lottery money to be spent on than some of the projects that have been supported (and failed) in the past.