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Best Mystery Novel Ever! The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett

October 15, 2012
Nick Charles with Asta instead of his wife Nora

Nick Charles doesn’t yet know the trouble he’s going to be in when his wife Nora finds out that he posed for this cover with Asta the dog instead of with her.

Determining the “best mystery ever” can be difficult because so many mysteries are so similar.  Despite various sub-genres (the whodunit, the hardboiled, the “think like a killer to catch a serial killer”), once you’ve read a couple within each category, you’ve read them all.  

But a BEST MYSTERY EVER should be a unique book.  It should combine all elements (except for the “think like a killer to catch a killer” because those suck).  It should be both a hardboiled detective story and a whodunit.  It should be so good that it can’t be copied (though it might have been tried).  And that book is The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammet. 

NICK AND NORA 

The Thin Man is known for Nick and Nora Charles, the first (that I know about) husband-and-wife detective duo.  Maybe by 1930s standards, Nora was considered part of the sleuthing team, but by today’s criteria, she just looks pretty (even though she “has hair on her chest”), says funny things, and is kind of a nuisance at times.  At least she had the right to vote back then. 

Still, the male-female aspect to sleuthing has been copied many times (or perhaps done better as an actual male-female detective duo).  Nick and Nora (deservedly or not) are considered the first. 

HARDBOILED SARCASM 

This book was written almost 80 years ago, but with its heavy sarcasm, it feels like it came out much more recently than that.  The dialogue in the book is so good, that almost entire scenes were used in the movie version of The Thin Man.  Every script writer should read this novel, just to see how dialogue should be written.  Scenes with four or five characters are easy to follow.  Even scenes with long paragraphs of dialogue exposition have one-liners that make it dangerous to skim because you might miss something. 

DISCLAIMER 

The Thin Man is far from being a perfect book.  There is a lot of exposition through dialogue (that bugs other readers more than it bugs me because I love the dialogue).  Since the reader never feels like Nick or Nora’s life is in danger (even when there’s a gun pointed at them), the book isn’t very suspenseful.  There are also a couple scenes that don’t seem to belong in the book (you’ll probably know them when you read them). 

But The Thin Man is so great in other areas that its strengths far overwhelm its weaknesses. 

MOVIE vs. NOVEL 

The Thin Man movie is almost perfect.  The book isn’t perfect.  Therefore, I have to choose the movie. 

A REMAKE? 

Supposedly, The Thin Man is being remade with Johnny Depp as Nick Charles.  That’ll work. 

If I were Nick Charles , and I had said “That’ll work,” everybody would recognize it as sarcasm.  But I’m not Nick Charles (or Dashiell Hammett), so I’m letting you know that I was being sarcastic when I said, “That’ll work.” 

It probably won’t work. 

MYSTERIES THAT AREN’T QUITE BEST EVER! 

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie- 

Readers that know a lot more about the genre will probably consider this one as BEST EVER!  It’s probably more famous than The Thin Man, and it’s considered the ultimate whodunit (or is Death on the Nile considered the ultimate whodunit?).  

Maybe with Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie wrote the BEST MURDER MYSTERY SERIES EVER (if you call it a series), but once you’re done with one book, there are more to read, and in some ways they are interchangeable.  

Once you’re done reading The Thin Man, that’s it.  The movie sequels don’t count. 

A Study in Scarlet– by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle 

How could this NOT be the BEST MYSTERY NOVEL EVER?  It’s SHERLOCK flippin’ HOLMES!!  The greatest detective of all time in his first and maybe greatest novel of all.  Plus, the guy who played Iron Man plays Sherlock Holmes.  The guy who played Iron Man will never play Nick Charles (though I’d rather see him do it than Johnny Depp). 

Sherlock Holmes may be the BEST FICTIONAL DETECTIVE EVER, but none of the novels stand out enough to be the BEST EVER.  There’s only one Nick Charles novel, and there are a bunch of Sherlock Holmes stories. 

I, the Jury by Mickey Spillane- 

Mickey Spillane could churn out novels in a way that John Sandford and Janet Evanovich can only dream about, and I, the Jury is the most famous one.  Again, once you’ve read a few Mickey Spillane novels, you’ve read most of them. 

The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris- 

I’m almost joking about this, but not quite.  This is a novel that benefited a lot from its movie.  How many novels and movies about female protagonists hunting/getting hunted by serial killers did this novel/movie inspire?  The novel itself isn’t BEST EVER, but it’s probably the most influential serial killer mystery of the last couple generations. 

*****

ONE FINAL SHOT AT THE REMAKE

Even though The Thin Man might be remade, I can’t criticize Hollywood for running out of ideas now.  Hollywood has been running out of ideas for a long time.  When The Thin Man was a successful movie, Hollywood made a bunch of sequels using The Thin Man in the title, even though the thin man was one of the murder victims (I hope that’s not a spoiler).  So by saying The Thin Man Returns, the movie makers were saying that a dead guy (not Nick Charles) comes back.  And the dead guy didn’t come back.  So back in the 1930s, Hollywood was out of ideas and willing to mislead the public about it.  Nothing has changed. 

 

3 Comments
  1. I love all of these, haven’t read Mickey Spillane, but you have left off Lord Peter Whimsey’s creator, Dorothy L. Sayer. She wrote brilliantly. Thin Man, though, is my favorite American detective with Nora. Loved the films. Mysteries are my favorite genre in books, films and good British TV and American Tv like Castle. J.K.

  2. Reblogged this on scorpioat20's Blog and commented:
    This has been one of my all time best books I have read. I must look for the book, feeling to read it again!

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  1. Best Books Ever By Genre!!! Part One | Dysfunctional Literacy

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