Places: The Thin Man

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1934

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Detective and mystery

Time of work: 1930’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Manhattan

*Manhattan. Thin Man, TheNew York City borough that is the financial and cultural center of the United States and the primary setting for the novel. Though various plot threads link the investigation to other places–such as Philadelphia and San Francisco–the entire novel unfolds within Manhattan, where Hammett himself lived for several years. His fictional sleuths, Nick and Nora Charles, move from city landmark to landmark and clearly know all stylish elements of the city. They meet with artists and professors in Greenwich Village and move from illegal speakeasies to Harlem, looking for fun. However, the novel offers little description of the city itself; instead Hammett merely drops minimal details into the narrative, contributing to the novel’s fast-moving pace, feeling of insider knowledge, and sense that all of Manhattan is merely a stage setting on which important people act with style.

Charles apartment

Charles apartment. Nick and Nora’s upper-class residence in Manhattan’s Normandie Building. The apartment has a bedroom, bathroom, living room, and enough space to have a bar. Its building contains a restaurant and a bellboy, whom the Charleses pay to take care of their pet dog, Asta. However, like the city, the apartment’s furnishings are never described. Despite this, the Charleses seem to live in an airy, stylish place. Hammett achieves this impression through witty exchanges among his characters that strongly suggest that the Charleses have an expensive and elegant lifestyle. He reinforces this impression by describing other places in details that create an implied contrast with their apartment.

*Colorado

*Colorado. Mountainous former frontier state in the West that Nick compares to Manhattan. When the young Gilbert Wynant asks Nick about cannibalism, Nick gives him a book with an account about a prospecting party trapped by a blizzard in Montana and makes the point that while violence occurs in both Manhattan and Colorado, the violence in Colorado is more likely to dehumanize the men involved. In contrast, a gunman who bursts into the Charleses’ Manhattan apartment is apt to be greeted with a quick witticism and competent action.

Clyde Wynant’s laboratory

Clyde Wynant’s laboratory. Place in which the inventor Clyde Wynant (the “Thin Man” of the novel’s title) conducts experiments and where his murdered body is found. The novel offers little description of the lab, beyond the fact that it has a heavy concrete floor. Wynant’s murder there reinforces the novel’s impression that no cultural site is free from the threat of violence in Hammett’s Manhattan. Violence occurs in domestic, public, and scientific locations. The lab is also important because only Nick thinks to look there. He does so specifically because murderer Clyde Macauley leaves the place out of the many comments he makes to misdirect investigators. This piece of sleuth work demonstrates Nick’s skill as a detective and also underscores the novel’s narrative technique of communicating key details through implication. The place that is not named is the most important place of all.

Jorgenson apartment

Jorgenson apartment. Upper-class Manhattan residence of Mimi and Christian Jorgenson. While the apartment appears to be virtually interchangeable with the Charleses’ apartment, it has a much different atmosphere. The Jorgensons are quick to feel threatened by outsiders and react angrily to anything they do not want to hear.

Nunheim’s apartment

Nunheim’s apartment. Lower-class apartment of the minor thug Arthur Nunheim. When Nick Charles and Guild, the police officer investigating the Wolf murder, interrogate Nunheim at his home, Charles describes its building as dark, damp, smelly, and noisy. This apartment is one of the novel’s few settings that is described in sufficient detail to create a vivid, if implicit, contrast with the Charles’s apartment.

Pigiron Club

Pigiron Club. Manhattan speakeasy run by Studsy Burke, a former safecracker whom Nick Charles once arrested. The club has a comfortably shabby look and is full of people, noise, and smoke in the evenings. Dorothy Wynand and Nick’s wife Nora are out of place in the Pigiron Club and cannot understand the slang spoken by its criminal patrons.

BibliographyDooley, Dennis. Dashiell Hammett. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1984. A basic survey of Hammett’s work and life specifically aimed at the general reader. Chapter 9, “Time’s Shadow,” provides an introduction to an interpretive reading of The Thin Man, which Dooley finds Hammett’s least successful novel.Gregory, Sinda. Private Investigations: The Novels of Dashiell Hammett. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985. A full-length study of Hammett’s five major novels. Chapter 6, “The Thin Man: The Detective Novel and the Comedy of Manners,” argues that the novel successfully merges the genres of hard-boiled fiction and comedy of manners and constitutes a serious and artistically unified work.Layman, Richard. Shadow Man: The Life of Dashiell Hammett. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981. The most scholarly and reliable of the various biographies of Hammett, this is an objective, readable, and carefully researched and documented source. Provides a valuable historical and biographical context for each of the novels as well as a synopsis of the plot.Marling, William. Dashiell Hammett. Boston: Twayne, 1983. A concise and well-informed introductory survey specifically aimed at the general reader. Provides a unified overview of all the novels. The brief chapter on The Thin Man gives a plot summary and some biographical context.Metress, Christopher, ed. The Critical Response to Dashiell Hammett. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1994. Includes an introduction that surveys the history of Hammett criticism; a series of excerpts from reviews, commentaries, and critical discussions of each novel; and a section dealing more generally with Hammett’s work. The section on The Thin Man reprints a journal article on the novel by George J. Thompson.
Categories: Places