September 11, 2012

The CCLaP 100: "The Thin Man," by Dashiell Hammett

(Since the beginning of 2008 I've been writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this label. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)

The Thin Man, by Dashiell Hammett

The Thin Man (1934)
By Dashiell Hammett
Book #69 in this essay series

The story in a nutshell:
Originally published in 1934 as what would turn out to be the last book of his career, Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man essentially takes the premise of his earlier "hardboiled" detective stories and turns it on its head; it's the story of former hardboiled detective Nick Charles, who four years previous had actually managed to get a feisty yet upper-class socialite to marry him, and who retired from the gumshoe business in order to be the financial manager of her large inherited portfolio of assets (including real estate, working mines and more). But on a rare vacation to New York (his former stomping grounds before moving to San Francisco after the wedding), Nick finds himself pulled into a new investigation against his will, as a scheming middle-aged former client and her manipulative daughter practically beg him to look into the disappearance of the alimony-late divorced former patron of the family (the "thin man" of the book's title), then proceed to tell the press, the police, and all the man's former enemies that Charles is officially on the case even though he's not, causing most of the darkly comedic messes that follow; and with his wife Nora never having gotten to see Nick in action before, she gleefully does everything she can to up the chaos even more, a bloodlusty gleam in her eye every time a gangster pulls a gun on them or during any other kind of life-threatening situation they seem to constantly find themselves in. As with most crime novels, the event-filled plot is best left as much a surprise as possible; but needless to say that many cocktails are imbibed, many bon mots are quipped, many punches are thrown and many complications are caused by the Charles' disobedient dog; and in the end it all works out okay for our newly famous heroes Nick and Nora, paving the way for the many movie and TV sequels to come.

The argument for it being a classic:
There are two main arguments for why this should be a classic, one more important among genre fans and one more often cited by academes; because to tackle the bigger and more famous argument first, crime fans say that Hammett essentially invented the hardboiled detective genre nearly singlehandedly, paving the way for what is now a billion-dollar industry and arguably the one most popular literary genre of them all here in the early 2000s. (Arguably!) Now, of course, there had already been lots of books before concerning the committing of crimes and the solving of them -- in fact, as we've seen earlier in this essay series, it was the early Victorians who invented the premise with their so-called "Newgate novels" (named for a famous London jail where many of these books were set), which after a public morals uproar morphed into "sensation novels" (in which the naughty fun of Newgate stories were mixed with the moodiness of Gothic literature, and moved into the realm of middle-class homes), which then eventually morphed into the noir and hardboiled genres we know today -- which brings us to the second, more academic argument for why this is a classic: that Hammett was one of the first crime writers to bring the clipped, slang-heavy, rat-a-tat writing style of Early Modernism to the genre, both inspiring and being inspired by such non-genre peers as Ernest Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis and Henry Miller, and basically bringing a kind of intellectual respect (if not the guilty-pleasure kind) to what had been the decidedly childish world of genre literature.

The argument against:
Only one major one, but one that you see argued a lot; that Hammett simply wasn't a good enough writer to be considered for the classics canon, a ham-fisted semi-amateur who just happened to get popular because of accidentally being the first person to write in this hackneyed style, but who was easily superseded in quality by people like Raymond Chandler not even one generation later. Plus there's a minor argument as well that you see over and over from online critics -- that Hammett was the originator of the overly complicated crime-novel plot, a bad addition to this genre that essentially drove away an entire chunk of its former audience, and that led to the ridiculously convoluted "whodunit" storylines of most modern murder novels.

My verdict:
So before anything else, let's just acknowledge that I should've actually reviewed Hammett's The Maltese Falcon if I had wanted a better look at what constituted the bulk of Hammett's career, in that The Thin Man is actually a lighthearted and comedic take on the overly serious, overly macho titles that make up most of his oeuvre; but it just so happens that I already read The Maltese Falcon when younger, and as regular readers remember, the entire original point of this CCLaP 100 series was to give me an excuse to read a hundred so-called classic novels that I never had before, simply so that I could become better informed as a book reviewer. And in fact, simply from a historical perspective, Hammett might be one of the most interesting writers I've come across yet in this essay series, because he tied together so many loose threads that existed in both the literary world and the popular culture in general, right at a time when these threads most needed tying together so to turn into something brand new for a "modern" time.

See, for those who don't know, even the concept itself of a "city police department" wasn't thought of for the first time until the 1830s; and until the 20th century, such police forces remained basically exercises in amateur buffoonery, leaving it to such cash-flush, discipline-heavy, forensics-obsessed private groups as the Pinkerton detective agency whenever a person actually needed a major crime solved. And Hammett just happened to have been a Pinkerton agent for years and years in his youth; so right at the beginning of the 20th century when these city police departments did finally start getting actually competent at their jobs, and all these former Pinkerton and other agents started going into business for themselves, shifting their focus to more domestic situations like philandering spouses and purloined jewelry, Hammett just happened to be in the exact right position and have the exact right experiences to start penning a series of stories romanticizing this new freelance activity, and it was his five novels and dozens of short stories that pretty much almost single-handedly established most of the "private eye" tropes we even think of anymore when we think of the genre.

I mean, yes, technically his critics are right, that Hammett's writing is overly pulpy and with overly complicated plots; but in many ways that's the entire point, that even the professor-loved Pulitzer winners of these years were adding such dramatic stylistic rebellions against Victorianism to their work, leading to the first time in the novel's history where the lowbrow and highbrow mixed so complexly that it was hard to tell them apart, which itself led both to the academic recognition of genre literature for the first time, and to the general shift in global literary dominance in those years to the United States (where this highbrow/lowbrow mixing largely took place, and became a source of endless fascination for culturally hamstrung European artists). It's the witty, fast-paced aspect of Hammett's work that is the very reason it should most be admired; and when combined with its profound effect on popular culture in general (like I said, Nick and Nora Charles eventually became the subjects of six extremely successful Hollywood movies and a 1950s television series, which then profoundly influenced nearly every other detective novel that came out in those years), plus Hammett's own tragically romantic real life (he lived for another 25 years after writing this, but medical problems exacerbated by his runaway alcoholism stopped him from finishing a single other book), is what leads me today to enthusiastically declare The Thin Man an undeniable classic that all of you should read at least once before you die.

Is it a classic? Yes

The next four books scheduled to be read:
The Shipping News, by E. Annie Proulx
Doctor Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak 
Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte
The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, by Oscar Hijuelos

Read even more about The Thin Man: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

(And don't forget that the first 33 essays in this series are now available in book form!)

Filed by Jason Pettus at 8:49 PM, September 11, 2012. Filed under: CCLaP 100 | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |