Thursday, June 5, 2008

THE THIN MAN, by Dashiell Hammett


I've only read one other novel by Dashiell Hammett, THE MALTESE FALCON, but I liked it so much that it (along with THE BIG SLEEP by Raymond Chandler) threw me right into the pulp-mystery reading binge I've been on for the last few months. Unfortunately, most of the books I've read since those first two haven't been nearly as much fun, and I'm starting to think I got confused at the start: it's not that I love mystery writing (in fact, I'm hardly interested in figuring out who-dunnit by the end of the book), it's just that I love Hammett's writing.

So I finally came back to Hammett with THE THIN MAN, his last novel, and I savored every blessed page. While I read I found myself wondering what it was that Hammett does with words that makes those words so fun to read. By the time I turned the last page, I had a few ideas.

First of all, Hammett is clever. His descriptions are always unique, unprecedented. He somehow finds a way to say something, in simple language, in a way it hasn't been said before. And on top of that, he says it in a way that feels more accurate, more perceptive and true, than the bulk of what most other people manage. He isn't using any special arsenal, any esoteric vocabulary, but the way he uses his words is masterful.

Here's an example, in which he's describing a dog's feelings, that sort of gets at what I'm trying to explain: "Asta liked Macaulay because when he patted her he gave her something to set her weight against: she was never very fond of gentleness."

Now, most people who spend time with dogs probably know that a lot of dogs are like this--they like to lean against you hard, to feel solid contact. Noticing this is not in itself especially clever, though it does seem (at least to me) especially true. But Hammett's way of phrasing it--"something to set her weight against"--is clever. I don't think many people would express the idea in this way. They might say "Dog's like to lean on you," but they probably wouldn't phrase it "they like something to set their weight against." They might say "dog's like to roughhouse," but they probably wouldn't come up with "they aren't fond of gentleness." Hammett manages to say what many know, and that those who don't know can still recognize as probably accurate, in a way that most wouldn't think to say it.

Another great thing about Hammett's books is the characters he peoples them with. The protagonists are especially compelling, and Nick Charles (from THE THIN MAN) is the best I've read so far. He's exceedingly competent and smart, yet still tough enough to dodge bullets and throw punches. And he's got a sense of humor, which makes him more like-able than Sam Spade (from THE MALTESE FALCON, who comes across as a little too eager to give the Limp-Wristed Levantine a slapping).

Because of these great characters, we get a lot of great dialog. Hearing Charles navigate conversations away from what he doesn't want to tell, seeing him drop hints for other characters to pick up, and hearing him cajole and tease his wife, is where a lot of the fun in book comes from. Hammett peppers his dialog with subtle innuendo and charm so effectively that it makes real-life talking dull by comparison.

I could go on about Hammett's story pacing; his short, punchy chapters; his stripped down, lean prose--all of that deserves mention, but it's time for me to clock out of work, and go home.

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