The Thin Man – Dashiell Hammett

The first, finest, and most famous adventure of Nick and Nora Charles, involving an unknown number of “perfect” crimes and two lovely girls fighting over Nick–and Nora never losing her cool.

One of the things I am most pleased with my reading for this year is getting back into reading quality mystery and noir fiction. A couple weeks ago I found two classic Dashiell Hammett books in a used book store, one of those being The Thin Man.

Nick Charles is a former private eye now in private industry on the West Coast, but is back in his old stomping grounds of New York with his beautiful young wife Nora. Technically, they are there on business, but really just there to drink. While out on the town, Nick’s detective past comes back into his life when he is greeted by the beautiful* young Dorothy Wynant, the daughter of a former client, the inventor Clyde Wynant. Her father is missing, and Nick ends up in touch with Herbert Macauley, the lawyer with power of attorney over the Wynant estate, who enlists his help in finding out who killed Clyde Wynant’s secretary. The bulk of the book is spent going in circles as Nick resists getting drawn into the tangle of hostile relationships that traps the Wynants (including mom Mimi and brother Gilbert), but nevertheless solves the case.

[* He describes her as “small and blonde, and whether you looked at her face or at her body in powder-blue sports clothes, the result was satisfactory.”]

I liked The Thin Man. It could have done a little bit better a job foreshadowing the dramatic turn at the end, but that was a minor issue. The story was well-paced and the reveal was satisfactory. The main thing that jumped out at me was the issue of gender, though I was willing to make some allowances for its age. The book cover implied that one of the exciting features of Nick Charles is that he is the object of women throwing himself at him and his powers of observation as a private eye gives him excuse to look at women. Despite my initial eye-roll at the women throwing themselves at Nick, it actually made some sense. The first woman is Dorothy, who was fascinated by Nick when she was twelve and is now a twenty-year-old socialite whose youthful crush is reignited particularly when drunk; the second is her mother Mimi, who was less believable as a flirtatious and “crazy” woman. However, the reason I came around to the dynamics was Nora Charles. More than staying cool, she has a relationship with Nick where they both tease each other about people who flirt with them and Nick never strays. More than that, Nora is not the experienced gumshoe that Nick is, but she is clever, clear-eyed, and talented.

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I am still behind one review, having also finished The Dark Tower. I’m going to start reading something new later today, but haven’t decided yet what that book will be.

The Dresden Files

I have now, as of two weeks ago, read the first three books in Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series and thought it would be an apt time for some reflection of the series, which I have described as pulpy, but fun.

Harry Dresden is the only publicly-listed wizard in America, with his advertisement appearing in the phonebook. He doesn’t do love potions or the like, but works as a supernatural private eye, with most of his income from a standing retainer with the Chicago police department. Lanky and dressed in a duster, with a silver amulet, staff, and hammer-action pistol, Harry strides into battle against vampires, were-wolves, ghosts, demons, and evil wizards; in this line of work he has seen–and done–some stuff that would make most people flinch. Around him are his cat Mister, the spirit Bob, the knight Michael, Detective Murphy, and the reporter Susan. Most people, including Susan and Murphy, don’t really know what is going on and Harry goes out of his way to shelter them from the worst of it.

Butcher has created a magic system that is simultaneously well thought out and ill-defined. For instance, magic has a tendency to cause technology to fail, so Harry uses the simplest guns, cars, and other technology available, but neither is there a guarantee of failure, so it can just happen to happen at the most inconvenient points. The rest of the system is built along similar lines where there are rules to how various sight abilities (eye contact, etc.) work, and how spells are constructed (circles need to be completed, potions use three ingredients that are linked to the outcome), but the specifics are often unclear even to Harry, who always wishes that Bob, the ancient spirit, was around to tell him how to make something. This mix gives a consistent feel to the books, but also allows for a great deal of variance based on the story. I also assume that Harry is leveling-up, as it were, but the general lack of specifics in that regard make it a little hard tell.

The first three books each dealt with one particular case Harry investigates, but their greatest virtue is that they serve to populate the world of the story with a growing cast of characters. This is something that typically happens as series develop, but one of the things that stood out in the first book was how few actual characters existed. Sure, there were plenty of things that needed to be attacked or dealt with and a number of individuals standing around in the background of the story, but there were really only about four real characters [plus Bob and Mister] and only Harry was actually central. Part of this falls back to the noir frame for the story, since Harry is the detective out on a dark night in a city that knows how to keep its secrets, so to speak. I got the impression early on that urban-fantasy, noir procedural was actually what Butcher was setting out to write, what with its observant first person narrative and shadowy investigations, but in the next few books noir has become more garnish than substance. In the same span, Butcher has begun to flesh out a slightly, and I do mean slightly, larger cast of characters, both those who are meant to be heroes and those who are villains in order to build a multi-book story-arc.

I like this series, but, after three books, I am still not sure how much. There was enough foreshadowing in the most recent book to suggest that they may be ready to transition into something a little more substantial than procedural, but I really don’t know. They are fun and easy to read, in contrast to some of the denser things I either have to or choose to pick up. At the same time, I am three books into a very long series and the number of actual characters is very small, particularly given how close the point of view is to Harry himself. I will probably read the next book in the series, but I can’t say when. Right now, these are feeling like change of pace books–fun, but not insistent enough to demand to be read.