Sunday, April 5, 2015

Something Lost

The Thin Man strikes me as a very fine novel, though a little plot-heavy towards the end, and a wholly remarkable conclusion to Dashiell Hammett's career as the best of the hard-boiled school of crime fiction. To invent something so different from anything he'd done in the brilliant sequence of the previous four novels that preceded this one suggests almost limitless powers of imagination. But, of course, they weren't limitless, as the more than thirty year silence that was to follow sadly indicates.

What happened? Despite never having read a full biography of Hammett, I think I know.

The opening pages are the best thing about the novel, and they create an enchanted world. No wonder Nick and Norah would enjoy a further career in the movies based around them. There's a real warmth about their relationship and a genuine glamour that is beguiling. Who wouldn't want to be as clever - and as well-off - as they are, exchanging witty one-liners as they drink their way through the night, looking forward to the next party or show to attend?

The trouble is that no one could possibly consume that much alcohol and remain in one piece for long. Certainly Hammett couldn't. Nick and Norah are a kind of dream, a form of denial. As good as the writing is, it's fundamentally dishonest and it's my guess that Hammett for all his gifts, and all his honesty, couldn't bear to go to the awful place he ended up in real life in his fiction. If he had done, I suppose we'd have had the equivalent of Long Day's Journey Into Night in the American novel. As it is we have to settle for five years or so of stunning accomplishment and then complete loss. Booze can be a terrible thing.

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