Having absorbed a few recently published mystery novels, I thought it would be fun and possibly instructive to compare and contrast them with one of the old masters. So I pulled out my copy of Dashiel Hammett’s The Thin Man. I have no memory of ever having read it; quite likely I picked it up on a book-buying binge. I mean, how can you be a mystery fan if you don’t own Hammett? That would be like being a Christian and not owning a Bible.
The plot is full of twists and turns. The reader gets smacked in the face with a couple of tuna-sized red herrings, but even the parts that do relate to the central thread are nicely tangled.
Just as interesting, the book is pretty much all plot. The trend in recent years has been strongly toward mysteries that include lots of schtick — the sleuth’s family life, details of horse racing or life in a Medieval monastery, whatever. Hammett has a deft touch with schtick, but he tosses in a line or two and then gets on with the story. Asta puts her paws up on Nick’s chest. Nick pours himself another drink. That’s about as deep as it gets, except for one wonderful facet of the book: It’s clear that Nick and Nora love and trust one another. He can come out of a female suspect’s bedroom with lipstick on his mouth, and Nora doesn’t feel a need to say anything. Not only does she not say anything, she doesn’t even react. It’s not important to her because she knows perfectly well that Nick is not fooling around.
Not only does she know it perfectly well, Hammett feels no need to rub our faces in the fact that she knows it. Given the same incident, the average modern mystery writer would feel compelled to riff on the subject of marital trust for at least two long, utterly tedious paragraphs. Hammett just lets us glimpse their marriage in action and then goes back to spinning out the plot.
After reading several mysteries that dwell lovingly on the details of cuisine, I was especially delighted by one particular sentence in The Thin Man. Can’t find it at the moment, but somebody or other is visiting Nick and Nora’s hotel suite at meal time, and room service has set up a table in the suite. The sentence is, “He put a forkful of food in his mouth.” That’s the entire description of the dining experience — bam. I loved that sentence. Hemingway couldn’t have done it any better.