History: Written in 1934, The Thin Man was Hammett's last novel.
Plot: The story is set in Prohibition-era New York City. The main characters are a former private detective, Nick Charles, and his clever young wife, Nora. Nick, son of a Greek immigrant, has given up his career since marrying Nora, a wealthy socialite, and he now spends most of his time cheerfully getting drunk in hotel rooms and speakeasies. Nick and Nora have no children, but they do own a schnauzer named Asta, changed to a wire haired fox terrier for the movies.
Charles is drawn, mostly against his will, into investigating a murder. The case brings them in contact with a rather grotesque family, the Wynants, and also with an assortment of policemen and lowlifers. As they attempt to solve the case, Nick and Nora share a great deal of banter and witty dialogue, along with copious amounts of alcohol. The characters of Nick and Nora are often thought to reflect the personalities of Hammett and his long-time lover, Lillian Hellman.
Because the "Thin Man" title was used for the subsequent movies, there is a widespread misapprehension that the term refers to Nick Charles himself; in fact it refers to Clyde Wynant, the mysterious and eccentric patriarch who is the main concern of the plot.
Review: As noted, Hammett modeled Nick and Nora on himself and his paramour, budding playwright Lillian Hellman, so it's interesting to see how he dealt in fiction with their relationship and his ultimate failure to cope with success.
In a way, 'The Thin Man' is a farewell. Here we have a once hard-boiled detective, Nick Charles, who has settled down with his wise-cracking wife, Nora, and doesn't want anything to do with his previous work. Instead, Nick drinks, and drinks, and drinks, and goes to parties, and hosts parties, and the like. Whenever anyone questions Nick over the case that he's rumored to be working, Nick simply claims that he doesn't want anything to do with being a detective and leaves it at that.
This being Hammett's final novel, I believe that it an all too valid assumption that
Hammett was using the character of Nick to symbolize himself and his own mentality. Even a cursory reading of the novel should demonstrate that Hammett was up to much more than a series of one-liners with detective interruptions. Why else would Hammett, one of the most economical of authors, bring the novel to a halt to include a case history of Alfred Packer, the only American convicted of the crime of cannibalism?
Some of these reviewers have made too much of the "alcoholism" in the book. Fact is, a certain, large segment of society in the `30s - products of Prohibition - did (or wanted to) drink the way the book's characters do and thought nothing of it. Basically, everybody drank in those days. Even the President of the United States had a bootlegger.
And what about the successive beatings the character Dorothy gets... no sympathy from Nick or apology from the mother for this. No resolving of this act of violence. This book is strongly representative of the times and culture that Hammett was living in.
Opening Line: "I was leaning against a bar in a speak-easy on 52nd Street waiting for Nora to finish her christmas shopping , when a girl got up from a table where she had been sitting with three other people and came over to me."
Closing Line: "That may be," Nora said, "But it's all very unsatisfactory."
Quotes: "How do you feel?"
"Terrible. I must have gone to bed sober."