(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Hammett’s fifth and final novel, The Thin Man, is a return to first-person narration, as Nick Charles narrates the story of a case he unwillingly takes on while vacationing. Charles retired from the Trans-American Detective Agency six years before the action of the book begins in order to manage the businesses that his young wife, Nora, inherited from her father. The couple is spending the Christmas holidays in New York City, primarily to avoid spending them with Nora’s family on the West Coast. While Charles is, in many respects, another example of the hard-boiled detective, the novel is unique in its light comic tone, which fitted it for popular adaptations in a series of “Thin Man” films. In the book, the thin man of the title is actually the missing inventor Clyde Wynant, not the detective. The description that Charles gives of Wynant (“Tall—over six feet—and one of the thinnest men I’ve ever seen. He must be about fifty now, and his hair was almost white when I knew him.”) fits Hammett himself, except for his age, and he posed for the picture on the jacket of the first edition of the book, perhaps furthering the popular misconception that the title refers to the detective.

In other respects, the author and his protagonist are quite similar, sharing the same age and the same background as detectives. Their personal lives are also similar: The centerpiece of the book is the relationship between the worldly and jaded Charles...

(The entire section is 503 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Nick Charles, a onetime detective and now a California lumberman, arrives in New York with his wife, Nora, for the Christmas holidays. He is drawn into investigating the murder of Julia Wolf, who was the secretary of Nick’s old client Clyde Wynant, a lunatic-fringe inventor whose wife, Mimi, divorced him in order to marry a man named Christian Jorgensen. Wynant is reported to be out of town, working on a new project, and Herbert Macaulay, Wynant’s attorney, has told police that he has not seen him since October, when Wynant gave him power of attorney.

The police suspect a number of people in Julia’s murder, including Mimi Jorgensen, her husband, a gangster named Morelli, Gil Wynant, and Clyde Wynant himself. Mimi had just returned from Europe and had gone to see Julia to get her former husband’s address because she needed more money to support their two children, twenty-year-old Dorothy and eighteen-year-old Gilbert; her new husband, Christian Jorgensen, had spent the large settlement Wynant had made at the time of their divorce. Mimi had arrived just in time for Julia to die in her arms.

Jorgensen had worked with Wynant several years earlier (at the time he was using a different name), and he believed that Wynant had not treated him fairly. In the course of the murder investigation, it is discovered that Jorgensen has a wife living in Boston and that he has married Mimi only to get Wynant’s money.

Morelli, the gangster, had once been fond of Julia. When he learns that Nick is on the case, Morelli goes to Nick and Nora’s apartment and, just as the police arrive, shoots Nick in the chest, a glancing shot that does not produce a serious wound. Nick refuses to press charges because the man is apparently in enough trouble already. The police beat Morelli but, not having a reason to hold him, release him the same day.

The members of the Wynant family do not have much love for one another. Gil is an odd young man who asks Nick about bizarre subjects such as incest and cannibalism. He is frequently found at keyholes, listening to private conversations.

The police also suspect Arthur Nunheim, who identified Julia Wolf’s body. When Nick goes with a detective named Guild to see Nunheim, they find him living in an extremely untidy apartment with a big, frowsy blond woman. In the presence of their callers, Nunheim and the woman insult each other until the woman leaves. Nunheim escapes from Nick through a back window, and he is reported murdered a little while later.

Macaulay reports that Wynant had made an appointment with him on the day the murder was committed, but he...

(The entire section is 1079 words.)