Saturday, August 03, 2013

*Nick And Nora To The Rescue- Dashiell Hammet's "The Thin Man"

Click on the headline to link to a Wikipedia entry for Dashiell Hammett's classic detective novel, The Thin Man.

Book Review

The Thin Man, Dashiell Hammett, Alfred A. Knopf, new York, 1934

Dashiell Hammett, along with Raymond Chandler, reinvented the detective genre in the 1930's and 1940's. They moved the genre away from the amateurish and simple parlor detectives that had previously dominated the genre to hard-boiled action characters who knew what was what and didn't mind taking a beating to get the bad guys. And along the way they produced some very memorable literary characters as well. Nick Charles (and wife Nora), Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe are well known exemplars of the action detective. Hammett, on the way to creating these literary works of art did journeyman's work at the detective genre in various pulp detective magazines. Moreover, in the beginning he hid his detectives behind the anonymous, although not faceless or without personality, average detectives of a national detective agency, the Continental Op series(shades of his own past). One of those efforts is an early almost totally unrelated version of The Thin Man that those who have read the later version (or know Nick, Nora and Asta only from the film series) would not recognize.

Dashiell Hammett is perhaps better known for creating the classic modern proto-typical detective, one Sam Spade the detective-hero (or anti-hero, if you prefer) of the literary (and film) noir The Maltese Falcon. With The Thin Man he took a different tack in providing a model detective- the urbane Nick Charles, his side-kick society wife, Nora, and their ever present faithful dog companion, Asta. The story line here centers on a missing eccentric inventor/businessman who it is suspected has been a victim of foul play. Enter Nick, Nora and Asta at the request of his wondering society family (wondering, that is, about the fate of the dough necessary to keep them in their luxuries) and after a series of misadventures and false leads Nick grabs the villain. That is what old Nick has in common with the illustrious Mr. Spade-the dogged (not pun, intended) and tenacious search for the truth and the killer, come what may. If you like your detectives with a light touch this is for you. If you like your detective novels to be minor works of literary art this is also for you. Hammett (along with the above-mentioned Raymond Chandler) practically reinvented the previously rather shabby art of the early detective story into literature. Kudos.

Note: It is not altogether clear to me what Hammett’s political sympathies (or rather more to the point, organization connections) were in the period of his great detection-writing period, the early 1930s, although one can speculate they were at least progressive. I should note for those who are only familiar with the detective novels and crime short stories that Hammett was a make-no-bones-about-it supporter of the American Communist Party during the hard, don’t trust your neighbor, see reds under every bed, your mommie is a commie turn her in, prison house, American night of the red scare, Cold War, post World War II period (and earlier as well, during the Popular Front all the way with FDR (Franklin Delano Roosevelt), Joe Stalin, our father can do no wrong, Moscow Trials liquidate the Old Bolsheviks, the makers of the revolution, time but this post-war period is what concerns me here).

This was period when anything to the left of Herbert Hoover, including probably red tablecloths on restaurant tables, was suspect. This is also the period of the unlamented Joe McCarthy, the equally unlamented Richard Nixon, the deep, fatal, anti-communist purges in the labor unions from which we still suffer today (and anti-red purges in many other political and cultural institutions as well), and of the time of “the naming of names.” The high watermark time of the “fink” and of the “blacklist.” I have vilified, rightly so, no, righteously so, the likes of movie director Elia Kazan (Viva Zapata, On The Waterfront) for their “stool pigeon” scab actions before the "committees".

Kazan was, unfortunately, not alone in that dark, witch-hunt, keep your eyes down, keep walking straight ahead with blinkers on, and tell them what they want to know although they already know it, night. I have also heaped tons of well-deserved praise on the heroic Rosenbergs, Julius and Ethel, for holding their ground under intense pressure and under penalty of paying the ultimate price, their lives, for their steadfastness. For defending the Soviet Union, not in our Trotskyist way, but in their own honorable way, and didn’t complain about it when they were called on it, unjustly, by the American imperial state.

Dashiell Hammett was called, tooth brush in hand, before the “red scare” committees and just said no. Hats off. Now there is no need to get mushy about it, and one should not forget that in the end Hammett’s Stalinist politics (and vilification of leftist political opponents like our Trotskyist forbears) made us not less political opponents, but isn’t there something in old Hammett’s actions, that sense of “tilting to the windmills,” that leads right back to Sam Spade (and Nick and Nora in an oblique, half-funny way). Yes, I thought you would think so.

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