What I Read in November 2016 Part III. . .The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett-- (Historical) Mystery/Detective Fiction
Retired Private Detective Nick Charles just wants to enjoy Christmas with his lovely wife Nora and their dog Asta in New York City. Charles can't relax and enjoy the season however, because he gets drawn into a mystery surrounding eccentric inventor Claude Wynant. It seems he's gone missing and his daughter, Dorothy, is looking for him, as is everyone else. When Wynant's secretary Julia is murdered, he becomes the chief suspect, but is still nowhere to be found. Wynant's ex-wife, daughter and lawyer all want Nick to come out of retirement to solve the mystery. Even the police put their faith in Nick. Will he take the case? Can he keep the crazy Wynant-Jorgensen family from killing each other and adding more murders to his plate?
This is my first foray into true detective fiction. I have seen the movies based on the book and loved them. There's nothing like a classic screwball comedy from the 30s. Nick and Nora are delightful and Asta is adorable. The basic plot outline of the movie follows the book fairly closely for a time before it departs. In the book there is also a lengthy and unnecessary passage on cannibalism that I felt compelled to skip over. The plot details of the book are a little darker than the movie. It's not gory but it involves child abuse (the child in question is 20 years old but hints at something that happened in her childhood), a dysfunctional family, adultery, alcohol, drugs and of course murder. Where the movie focuses more on Nick and Nora and is mostly a comedy with a mystery, the book is strictly a mystery with some comedy thrown in. There are some ethnic and racial slurs tossed around, giving way the fact the book was written decades ago rather than a recent historical fiction novel. That and the copious amounts of drinking the characters do. This book is set just before Prohibition ended but not even the cops seem to care.
It was hard to get used to the first-person narration from Nick's point-of-view. I usually read female point-of-view mysteries. For someone so involved in the case, Nick is rather hard boiled and matter of fact. He jokes around and makes some fabulously funny jokes but I felt a little detached from the action. He also solves the case randomly and quickly! I never guessed who did it and stayed up too late reading to find out-and I've seen the movie more than once!
I have mixed feelings about Nick and Nora here. They seem to be a well-matched couple. He doesn't take anything seriously and is fond of joking with his wife, like in this scene about her Christmas gift:
“I'll give you your Christmas present now if you'll give me mine."
I shook my head. "At breakfast."
"But it's Christmas now."
"Whatever you're giving me," she said, "I hope I don't like it."
"You'll have to keep them anyway, because the man at the Aquarium said he positively wouldn't take them back. He said they'd already bitten the tails off the...”
They trade quips but not as many as in the movie though I recognized some of the dialogue from the movie, which was taken from the book. Nick isn't quite a ladies' man but he's attractive enough to attract attention and clearly has a past. Nora seems to accept this without question. I can't tell if she is secure in Nick's love for her, doesn't care or is prepared to look the other way. She actually flirts a bit too and attracts her own admirers so I guess they are equal. She doesn't have a lot to do in the book. They're not detecting partners. She doesn't always wait around for him to come home and has a bit of sass so I guess she's OK for a woman of her time in a novel written by a man.
The only other character I liked a lot in the book was Asta. Here Asta is a female Schnauzer and not a male Wire Fox Terrier and she doesn't have a whole lot of action but is cute. Nick clearly loves his dog which is so nice to see. The criminals, Studsy and Morelli, provide some of the comic relief in the book. Studsy is especially funny.
I had a little bit of sympathy for Macaulay, the frazzles lawyer wondering what his client had done and where he was. I even had sympathy for Julia Wolf, who didn't exactly deserve to be murdered. The revelations about her made me feel less sorry for her.
The Wynant-Jorgensens are all nuts. Dorothy is insecure, whiny and crazy. I feel bad for her coming from a crazy family but not enough to like her. Her mother, Mimi Jorgensen, is downright sociopathic. Gilbert's hobbies are unusual to say the least and I'm not quite sure what to make of him, but he is one strange kid. Claude doesn't sound like much of a prize either. He hasn't spent any time with his family and then takes off without notifying anyone in the family. Jorgensen seems an odd match for Mimi because he's quiet and cold, not to mention everything else that goes on around the family.
Though this is different from the movie, it's worth a read, minus the part about cannibalism. I enjoyed it and now I want to see the movies again. (After the Thin Man is my favorite).
Crampton Hodnet by Barbara Pym-- Historical Fiction/Classic
The quiet village of North Oxford is populated by widows and spinsters and is close to the University where there are dons and co-eds a plenty to give the old gossips something to talk about. Miss Doggett, the aunt of one such don, is the village's moral police. She keeps strict tabs on her companion, Miss Morrow, a woman of a certain age. When the new curate comes to stay, Miss Doggett naturally assumes that Miss Morrow, plain and boring, will not be a threat to the young man. Miss Morrow finds she enjoys his company but why would a man ever think twice about her? Romance is for young and pretty girls like Anthea Cleveland, Miss Dogget's great niece. Anthea's father, an aging don, thinks romance may be for him as well. It all plays out in the village, the British Museum in London, tea rooms and trains. This is a very BBCish sort of story. Fans of Cranford or BBC period dramas will probably enjoy this one.
The story took a long time to get into. Too many characters were introduced in the first chapter and most of them didn't reappear for a very long time, if at all. The plot picks up about halfway through and then I had to see how it all turned out. It is funny in places, especially in one scene that is reminiscent of Mr. Darcy's proposal to Elizabeth, but it's very bittersweet. Characters reflect on morality and mortality; some have their hearts broken while others discover their true place. Some of the attitudes expressed in the story are very dated. Some of the older characters behave like it's still 1900 and expect everyone else to live up to the same strict moral code. Miss Doggett is on the lookout for an advantageous match for her great-niece and Miss Morrow is rather Fanny Price-ish. She has a bit more spunk in her that comes out once in awhile and I liked her witty banter with the curate. Older characters have a lax attitude towards adultery, some are prepared to wink at it, while some propose to ignore it. The one thing I was mostly bothered by was a scene where a young lady is kissed by a young gentlemen she's only just met! That wasn't even the first time it happened and not one character had a problem with it. Also, an middle-aged don falls in love with a student and the age difference isn't the problem.
I didn't find any of the characters completely likeable. I found Miss Doggett incredibly nosy, selfish and domineering but she wasn't half as bad as old Mrs. Killigrew and her son who spy on people and use what they learn to fuel the gossip hotline and stick their noses in where they don't belong. They are very nasty, unpleasant people. I had some sympathy for Miss Morrow. She is somewhat likeable, especially in the middle of the novel. She has a sense of humor which I liked. Anthea is likeable enough for a young woman absorbed in her own affairs. The other young woman appearing in the story, Barbara Bird, is a bizarre nitwit. She may be intelligent but she lacks common sense.
This book was never published in the author's lifetime and the introductory blurb on the dust jacket indicates she was just honing her skills. I may give a later novel a chance and see if I like it more than this one.