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I was leaning against the bar in a speakeasy on Fifty-second Street, waiting for Nora to finish her Christmas shopping, when a girl got up from the table where she had been sitting with three other people and came over to me. She was small and blonde, and wether you looked at her face or at her body in powder-blue sports clothes, the result was satisfactory. “Aren’t you Nick Charles?” she asked.
from “The Thin Man”
Crime Meets Screwball Comedy
Dashiell Hammett created Sam Spade the immortal private eye of the The Maltese Falcon, the blueprint for the hard-boiled detective who is committed to solving the murder mystery of his partner (or whatever). A commitment to unravel all secrets around a case, once the private eye has signed his contract, independent of any inconveniences for himself, is a crucial feature for any of these boys.
By the way: Is there anybody out there who never watched the classic movie The Maltese Falcon starring the iconic Humphrey Bogart?
Later on he created Nick and Nora Charles, also busy in the private eye business. However, Nora (26) is a millionaire who managed to marry Nick (41), a successful private eye, about 5-6 years ago. After his marriage Nick – let’s say – retired, although every now and then … when a case suddenly emerges … As a consequence amid a Christmas holiday in New York Nick and Nora start investigating, especially Nora loves it. The challenge: a girl – young, blonde, good-looking – looks for her father who seems to have vanished into thin air.
By the way: Is there anybody out there who never watched the classic movie The Thin Man starring Myrna Loy and William Powell who turned the crime mystery in some sort of screwball comedy?
I like to start with a necessary clarification about the series. Of course Dashiell Hammett wrote only one single novel about Nick and Nora – and I wouldn’t call it a crime comedy although the novel is filled with sharp dialogues.
So there is no series in crimes novels, only in movies. However, beginning of the 30s within the spirit of the age the novel was more than predestined to become a movie.
Following a recent trend Nick and Nora represented people living the good and easy life staying overnight in luxury apartments resp. hotels, drinking cocktails, smoking, drinking more cocktails – and Nora was at the same level as Nick i. e. no submissive, prissy, nice housewife happy to cook and clean etc. I think the success of Nick and Nora was mainly due to the movies which led to a series of movies during the 30s and 40s to begin with. (Later on in the 50s there was also a TV series, but I don’t recall anything about that.)
Nick is a misfit concerning Nora’s rich family, although he is welcome to solve any problems – like when somebody gets lost or seems to be involved in a crime. The second movie in the series is the best example for the snobbishness of Nora’s family and their involvement in crime (with a young, a very young James Stewart).
In the original novel – as well as in the movie – Nick and Nora are investigating the sudden disappearance of an old friend resp. client of Nick whose young daughter desperately asks Nick for help. Nick starts working alongside to happy hours and dinners under surveillance of Nora. Of course Nick is successful: he stumbles over cases of fraud, adultery, bigamy … corpses starting to turn up.
… and the Thin Man: It’s the missing father who is rather tall and rather thin. The Thin Man is everywhere and nowhere. He writes letters and sends telegrams – he even seems to make phone calls. However, nobody has met him in person. At the same time his former secretary aka lover is murdered out of the blue and the Thin Man becomes the main suspect. As a result Nick gets caught in the crossfire of the Thin Man’s family and the police.
Coming back to Nick and Nora, our brilliant couple. (They’ve also got a companion, Mr. Asta, a keen and cute little dog.) Both like the good life and lots of alcohol. It isn’t unusual to have breakfast at noon … to go to parties until midnight and end up in a speakeasy for the rest of the night. Somehow both do not fit into the image of the usual US American couple; they are rather modern and may also live in the 70s … Meanwhile all this smoking and drinking is no longer in.
Is Nick rasp. are Nick and Nora really committed to the task?
The novel seems light and easy, crime is well covered up by the society. Nick is busy with cocktail parties, meeting old friends from the shady side, talking with the family, with the lawyer, with the police. (The police is rather in the dark.)
You might get the impression that Nick isn’t really interested in tracking down the Thin Man. However, in between all this holiday and Christmas partying he investigates and notices a lot of inconsistencies. Finally he nails down the fate of the Thin Man and solves all the murder cases around it.
Somehow Nick Charles reminds me of Raymond Chandler’s later Philip Marlowe who also marries a millionaire and tries to carry on with his business. However, the comedy aspect is missing.
So if you like to relax, to have fun and suspense just start reading – or re-reading – The Thin Man and/or watch the movie(s) – once again.