This is a bit more fun and quite a bit less dark than [book: The Maltese Falcon]. Though both here and there, someone is dead within the first couple pages, basically within mere moments of contacting the narrator or main character.
Here the narrator is a lovably lazy, bibulous man named Nick Charles. He used to be a private investigator, but he’s long since retired to attend to the investments left to him when his wife’s father died. Charles jokes on a few occasions about marrying her for the money, and you’re never quite sure if it’s a joke or a “joke.”
He comes semi-unwillingly out of retirement to investigate Just One More Case, when his old lawyer friend and war buddy calls him up to say that an old eccentric client has gotten back in touch; soon after, a confidant of that client is dead, and we’re immediately to wonder: did the crazy guy do it? (Answer: maybe!)
[book: The Thin Man]’s main allure is the nutty family from which the crazy man comes; they’re brilliantly drawn characters. Years ago he’d divorced his capricious, violent, unpredictable wife Mimi, who lights up this book’s pages (even if it’s a blacklight) and leaves you just a little terrified every time you meet her. She’s such a caricature that she belongs on stage where she can be rendered operatically. (I imagine this was deliberate. [book: The Thin Man] got turned into a series of six movies and a television show.) Mimi’s son reminds me of Elijah Wood’s character from [film: Sin City], only without the violence but with the capacity, lurking just below the surface, for utter terror.
Every Hammett novel in this collection must feature a gorgeous 20-something blonde. The one here is Mimi’s daughter, who has apparently grown from a gorgeous child to a delicious adult. At one point she passes out drunk, and Nick and his wife undress her for bed — seemingly for no purpose other than so that Hammett and the audience can gaze lovingly upon her “beautiful little body.” Whenever she shows up, someone is drooling over her; clearly we’re meant to as well.
Again, since we know that we’re going to be led bewilderingly through twist after twist and turn after turn, the plot is incidental. Phone calls, letters, and chance meetings seemingly deflect Nick from finding the killer, but we know that in the back of his capacious mind he’s keeping it all together and ploddingly unmasking the bad guy. Meanwhile he does some copious drinking. It’s great fun.