Dashiell Hammett •
The Thin Man •
To begin with, Dashiell Hammett isn’t Raymond Chandler. People tend to confuse them because Humphrey Bogart played detectives created by both writers (Chandler’s Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep, and Hammett’s Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon). The films—both noir classics and well worth your time—have a lot of similarities; the books don’t.
The Thin Man is also far and away the best thing Hammett ever wrote; none of his other novels even come close. The wit in it is palpable, the characters endearingly cockeyed. It’s set in Prohibition-era New York, always a plus for the speakeasy venues, and has some of the all-time great cop dialogue: “They’re grand detectives I got working for me,” declares Lieutenant Guild at one point. “Didn’t he yell ‘Boo!’ when he jumped out at you?”
And Hammett gives us a sharp portrait of his real-life inamorata, Lillian Hellman, in the person of Nora Charles, Nick’s wife—smart, sassy, and direct. “You damned fool,” she complains to her husband after their bedroom is invaded by a gun-wielding tough, “you didn’t have to knock me cold. I knew you’d take him, but I wanted to see it.”
Once you’ve read Hammett and Chandler, it’s all downhill in the hard-boiled detective fiction genre . . . until you get to Robert B. Parker.
But that’s another story.