Tea Tonic and Toxin: Mystery and Thriller Podcast and Book Club

THE THIN MAN

by Dashiell Hammett

The allure of THE THIN MAN (1934) lies in its timeless intrigue, captivating characters, and masterful storytelling. Dashiell Hammett’s novel is known for its clever plot twists, witty dialogue, a surprising blend crime and comedy – and the enigmatic detective duo of Nick and Nora Charles.

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The Thin Man - Dashiell Hammett - Tea Tonic & Toxin Book Club and Podcast

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The Thin Man: Conversation Starters

The Thin Man - Dashiell Hammett - Tea Tonic & Toxin Book Club and Podcast
The Thin Man - Dashiell Hammett - Tea Tonic & Toxin Book Club and Podcast
The Thin Man - Dashiell Hammett - Tea Tonic & Toxin Book Club and Podcast

Here are some of our initial thoughts. Please share your thoughts below!

Chronology: The story takes place during the December holiday season of 1932.  Prohibition is repealed on December 5, 1933. The novel was published January 8, 1934. The film adaptation was released May 25, 1934. (Thus the shift from speakeasies serving illicit hooch in The Thin Man to legit bars, restaurants, and clubs in the films.) 

The Thin Man, Chapter 1 (72 Intro Words and 62 Closing Words That Set the Scene): “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 whether 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.”

    Nick and Nora find a table. Nora said: “She’s pretty.” [referring to Dorothy Wynant]
    “If you like them like that.”
    She grinned at me. “You got types?”
    “Only you, darling–lanky brunettes with wicked jaws.”
    “And how about the red-head you wandered off with at the Quinns’ last night?”
    ​​”That’s silly,” I said. “She just wanted to show me some French etchings.”

Another example of a tightly “scripted” scene in The Thin Man:

    “Anger was a very pretty thing in Mimi’s blue eyes. “[Dorothy is] my child and she’s a minor. You’ve been very kind to her, but this isn’t being kind to her or to me, and I won’t have it. If you won’t send her home, I’ll take steps to bring her home. I’d rather not be disagreeable about it, but”–she leaned forward and deliberately spaced her words–’she’s coming home.’
    “I said: “You don’t want to pick a fight with me, Mimi.”
    “She looked at me as if she were going to say “I love you,” and asked: “Is that a threat?”
    “All right,” I said, “have me arrested for kidnapping, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, and mopery.”
    She said suddenly in a harsh enraged voice: “And tell your wife to stop pawing my husband.”
    Nora, looking for another phonograph record with Jorgensen, had a hand on his sleeve. They turned to look at Mimi in surprise.
    I said: “Nora, Mrs. Jorgensen wants you to keep your hands off Mr. Jorgensen.”
    “I’m awfully sorry.” Nora smiled at Mimi, then looked at me, put a very artificial expression of concern on her face, and [spoke] in a somewhat sing-song voice, as if she were a schoolchild reciting a piece.”

It’s interesting that there is little by way of close physical description of Nick or Nora  in The Thin Man– which is unusual in Hammett’s works. Our guest, Dashiell Hammett’s granddaughter Julie Rivett, has a theory as to why this might be.

Questions for our Guest, Julie Rivett

From an article in Orange Coast Magazine: “One of my jobs in talking about my grandfather is to humanize him … to get beyond that iconic image.”

Your memories of her grandfather stem from a single childhood visit. Can you tell us about it?

Please give us the correct pronunciation of his name. Where did he get his first name?

Please tell us about anything you’d like to set the record straight on concerning your grandfather.

Tell us about the drinking. It’s so pronounced in The Thin Man and Hammett’s other books, and the article alluded to it as well: In one letter, Dolan advises him to eat healthy and to “take the cure”—a euphemism at the time for laying off liquor.

In what ways does Hammett most relate to his different detectives? Is there any particular one he most identifies with? Do you have insight about his inspiration?

Tell us about how you explain Hammett’s unique position in the development of American fiction? What do you think of comparisons to the likes of Hemingway?

What role did Hammett play in the early film productions of his work?

What role do you play in current film conversations?

What stands out to you as the best of the best in terms of films?

Tell us about your own writing, and your contribution to your mother’s memoir.

How did your mother deal with the breakup of the family?

What was your relationship like with Lillian Hellman?

How did the literary trust of Hammett’s work move from being outside the family to being back in it?

Tell us about the following quote: “He was brilliant, but imperfect. He had a family and a sense of humor. He loved children and dogs, and he liked working with his hands and hunting. He was a serious politician, and he was a drunk. In other words, he was a real person.”

Which of Hammett’s books is your personal favorite?

The Charles’ Marriage in The Thin Man

Example: “Nora, coming in to answer the telephone, looked questioningly at me. I made a face at her over [Dorothy’s] head.
    “When Nora said ‘Hello’ into the telephone, the girl stepped quickly back away from me and blushed. ‘I–I’m sorry,’ she stammered, ‘I didn’t–’
    “Nora smiled sympathetically at her. I said: ‘Don’t be a dope.’ The girl found her handkerchief and dabbed at her eyes with it.”

Example: Dorothy shows up drunk at the Normandie. She has a gun. She lies about where and why she got it. She says Nick is the “only person in the world I got to turn to.” Nora consoles her.

Example: Nick “carried [Dorothy] into the bedroom and helped Nora undress her. She had a beautiful little body.” Minutes later, Dorothy “came over and curled up beside me on the sofa while Nora went to get something to put around her.”

Example: Nora “sat up holding her cheek and looked around the room …. Morelli’s face was a mess: the coppers had worked him over a little just for the fun of it. Nora glared at [Nick]. ‘You damned fool,’ she said, ‘you didn’t have to knock me cold. I knew you’d take him, but I wanted to see it.’
    “Jesus,’ [one of the coppers] said admiringly, ‘there’s a woman with hair on her chest.’”

Example: In Chapter 25, Nora says to Nick, “I don’t like these people.” Nora tells Dorothy to leave with her and Nick. Mimi goes after Dorothy, but she has Nick and Nora to deal with. Nick lifts her in the air and tosses her on the sofa. Nora tosses two glasses of water in her face. Nick “looked sidewise at Nora. Her mouth was set and her eyes were almost black with anger.”

Example: “Tell me something, Nick. Tell me the truth: when you were wrestling with Mimi, didn’t you get excited?” [The original version and the Canadian Gutenberg edition says: “didn’t you have an erection?”]
    “Oh, a little.”
    [Nora] laughed and got up from the floor. “If you aren’t a disgusting old lecher,” she said. (ch 25)

Dedication: The Thin Man is dedicated to playwright, memoirist, and screenwriter Lillian (Hellman). To what degree is Nora based on Lillian (and Nick based on Dashiell Hammett)? 

How, exactly, do Nick and Nora make their marriage work? What roles do money, alcohol, ennui (and its opposite, the thrill of the chase), and trust play in this marriage? In what ways is this marriage different from the Jorgensons’, the Quinns’ marriage, the Continental Op’s relationship with Dinah, and Sam Spade’s relationship with Brigid O’Shaughnessy? Is Nora a prototype for a liberated woman? 

Nick Charles in The Thin Man

Example: “[Nora] lit a cigarette for me, one for herself. ‘Don’t you ever think you’d like to go back to detecting once in a while just for the fun of it? You know, when something special comes up, like the Lindb–’
    “Darling,” I said, “my guess is that Wynant killed her, and the police’ll catch him without my help. Anyway, it’s nothing in my life.”
    “I didn’t mean just that, but–”
    “But besides I haven’t the time: I’m too busy trying to see that you don’t lose any of the money I married you for.” I kissed her. “Don’t you think maybe a drink would help you to sleep?”

Example: Nick says to Mimi, “The way it stands, I’ve got no reason for putting in with you. Your Chris is no enemy of mine. I’ve got nothing to gain by helping you frame him.”
    She sighed. “I’ve been thinking about that a lot. I don’t suppose what money I could give you would mean much to you now”–she smiled crookedly–“nor my beautiful white body.

Example:  Macauley says to Nora. “I don’t suppose he ever told you he saved my life once in a shell-hole in–“
    “He’s nuts,” [Nick] told her. “He fired at a fellow and missed and I fired at him and didn’t and that’s all there was to it.”

What does Nick’s modesty about his wartime heroism say about him? In what ways does Nick in The Thin Man remind you of Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon? In what ways do the two men differ?

The Art of Detection in The Thin Man

Example: Nick says, “Everything … we’ve got from them has been hooey.”
    Nora says, “That may be good enough for a detective, but it’s not convincing enough for me. Listen, why don’t we make a list of all the suspects and all the motives and clues, and check them off against–“
    “You do it. I’m going to bed. What’s a clue, Mamma?”
    “It’s like when Gilbert tiptoed over to the phone tonight when I was alone in the living-room, and he thought I was asleep, and told the operator not to put through any in-coming calls until morning.”
    “Well, well.”
    “And,” she said, “it’s like Dorothy discovering that she had Aunt Alice’s key all the time.”
    “Well, well.”
    “And it’s like Studsy nudging Morelli under the table when he started to tell you about the drunken cousin of–what was it?–Dick O’Brien’s that Julia Wolf knew.”
    I got up and put our cups on a table. “I don’t see how any detective can hope to get along without being married to you, but, just the same, you’re overdoing it. …” (ch 25)

Example:    Nora says, “I tried to throw out my personal feelings and stick to logic. Before I went to sleep last night I made a list of all the–“
    “There’s nothing like a little logic-sticking to ward off insomnia. It’s like–“
    “Don’t be so damned patronizing. Your performance so far has been a little less than dazzling.”
    “I didn’t mean no harm,” I said and kissed her. “That a new dress?”
    “Ah! Changing the subject, you coward.” (ch 26)

Example: At the end (Ch 31), Nick outlines his take on the whole sinister plot.
    After she hears his take, Nora says, “Probably.”
    Nick says, “It’s a word you’ve got to use a lot in this business.”
    Nora says, “I always thought detectives waited until they had every little detail fixed in–“
    “And then wonder why the suspect’s had time to get to the farthest country that has no extradition treaty.”

Example: Nick says to Dorothy, “I’m not a psychoanalyst. I don’t know anything about early influences. I don’t give a damn about them.” (ch 25)

How does Nick investigate the crime? How does Nora investigate? What are your thoughts regarding their different methods? What does Nick’s refusal to listen to Dorothy’s story about her childhood say about his methods as a detective?

All These Rich Characters in The Thin Man

Hammett’s characters come alive, even when they have little to no page/screen time. Hammett’s concise, informative physical descriptions of the various characters, a talent he honed while working as a detective for Pinkerton’s.

Example: “Leda [Tip] Edge seldom sat–she perched on things–and liked to cock her head a little to one side. Nora had a theory that once when [Halsey] Edge opened an antique grave, Tip ran out of it, and Margot Innes always spoke of her as the gnome, pronouncing all the letters.” (ch 20)

Example: Miriam says to Nunheim: “‘I don’t like crooks, and even if I did, I wouldn’t like crooks that are stool-pigeons, and if I liked crooks that are stool-pigeons, I still wouldn’t like you.’” (ch 16)

Example: Alice says: “It’s none of my business, Nick, but what do people think of me?”
    Nick says, “You’re like everybody else: some people like you, some people don’t, and some have no feeling about it one way or the other.”
    She frowned. “That’s not exactly what I meant. What do people think about my staying with Harrison with him chasing everything that’s hot and hollow?”
    “I don’t know, Alice.”
    “What do you think?”
    “I think you probably know what you’re doing and whatever you do is your own business.”
    She looked at me with dissatisfaction. “You’ll never talk yourself into any trouble, will you?” She smiled bitterly. “You know I’m only staying with him for his money, don’t you? It may not be a lot to you, but it is to me–the way I was raised.”
    “There’s always divorce and alimony. You ought to have–“
    “’Drink your drink and get to hell out of here,’” she said wearily.”

The characters are arguably all standouts. To that end, what’s the deal with Mimi, Dorry, and Gil?
    Nora asks, “What’s the matter with [the Wynants]? Are they the first of a new race of monsters?”
    Nick says, “I just tell you what happens; I don’t explain it.” (ch 20)

The Truth, the Partial Truth, and Anything but the Truth

    Nick says to Dorothy: “It’d be swell if just once one of you people would make a clear and complete statement about something–it wouldn’t matter what.”
    In Chapter 27, Guild says to Nick, “Everybody’s been telling me practically the whole truth. What I want’s some impractical son of a gun that’ll shoot the works.”

The Thin Man and Alfred G. Packer 

Gilbert is interested in cannibalism. Nick has Gilbert read Duke’s Celebrated Criminal Cases of America [“Alfred G. Packer, The ‘Maneater,’ Who Murdered His Five Companions in the Mountains of Colorado, Ate Their Bodies and Stole Their Money.”] (1873; ch 13). Why is this scene included?

The Great Depression (1929-1945)

The story in The Thin Man takes place during the Great Depression. However, Nick and Nora enjoy a carefree existence because of Nora’s wealth. What might have been the appeal to readers and viewers at the time? What’s the appeal today?

    Quinn says, “Listen, boy, you bank at the Golden Gate Trust in San Francisco, don’t you?”
    Nick says, “Got a little money there.”
    “Get it out, boy. I heard tonight they’re plenty shaky.”
    “All right. I haven’ t got much there, though.”
    “No? What do you do with all your money?”
    “Me and the French hoard gold.”
    He shook his head solemnly. “It’s fellows like you that put the country on the bum.”
    “And it’s fellows like me that don’t go on the bum with it,” I said.” (ch 20)

    Macaulay says Quinn was once his broker; his advice led him “‘right up to the poor-house.’
    “‘That’s sweet,’” I said. ‘He’s my broker now and I’m following his advice.’
    “Macaulay and the girl laughed. I pretended I was laughing and returned to my table.”

Historical References in The Thin Man

 

Theater, Film, Music, Books, Literature

 

Food in The Thin Man

  • Nick orders a raw chopped beef sandwich w/onions and coffee from all-night deli (ch 5).
  • Nora eats cold duck (ch 20).
  • Nick orders coffee and chicken livers (ch 26).

 

The Thin Man: Other Topics

Two production companies — Margot Robbie’s LuckyChap and Brad Pitt’s Plan B — are in talks to co-produce a remake of the 1934 film.

The upcoming AMC series Monsieur Spade will air on Jan. 14. It’s getting a lot of buzz on what-to-watch lists. 

Gilbert thinks Dorothy has dromomania (disorder encompassing wandering mania, dipsomania, kleptomania, pyromania, and other allied impulsive acts), per Stekel.

Nick and Mimi have a past:  “You’re the damnedest evasive man,” Mimi said to Nick. “Did you like [Julia Wolf] as much as you used to like me, for instance?
    “You mean those couple of afternoons we killed?”

A woman, a spaniel and a walnut tree,
The more they’re beaten the better still they be.
(author: John Taylor, 17th-century English poet; poem based on an Italian proverb; ch 3)

The Thin Man: Weigh In

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About Tea, Tonic & Toxin

Tea, Tonic, and Toxin is a book club and podcast for people who love mysteries, detective stories, thrillers, introspection, and good conversation. Each month, your hosts, Sarah Harrison and Carolyn Daughters, will dive into the history of mystery to get a firsthand look at how the mystery genre evolved.

Along the way, we’ll entertain ideas, prospects, theories, doubts, and grudges, along with fabulous guests. And we hope to entertain you, dear friend. We want you to experience the joys of reading some of the best mysteries and thrillers ever written.

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