Saturday, December 20, 2014

The US in the Thirties: The Thin Man, and The Devil To Pay


The stock-market crash of October 1929 destroyed economies all over the world. Hunger, poverty, and unemployment rose and heralded in what is called The Great Depression. I recently read two mysteries written by American authors in the thirties and it was interesting to see how they reflected the tenor of the times.

Cover Image: Photo of Hammett by Azarnick


Former detective Nick Charles and his wife Nora are in New York for Christmas when a young girl approaches Nick. She is the daughter of a former client of Nick, Clyde Wynant (the eponymous 'thin man') and wants to know whether Nick has heard from her father. Her mother having remarried, she has little contact with her father. From that time onward and much against his wishes, Nick becomes involved in the mystery surrounding the disappearance of Wynant. Julia Wolf, Wynant's secretary and mistress, is murdered, Wynant goes missing, communicating only through his lawyer, the much-harassed Herbert Macaulay. Besides the police, Wynant's ex-wife Mimi, also wants to talk to him badly as she wants more money otherwise she might very well lose her new husband. There are lies, falsehoods, and weirdness galore and one never does know about what really is going on. In between, Nick and Nora banter and (despite it being the prohibition era) drink copious amount of alcohol.

The novel is great and entertaining and added a new word to my vocabulary: Speakeasy.



The other novel, Ellery Queen's The Devil to Pay is set in Hollywood and deals with a financial crash engineered by an industrial shark Solly Spaeth. His mechanisation not only crushes a number of people, who had bought stocks of his company but also ruin his business partner, Rhys Jardin. Solly's son, Walter, who has no truck with his father, is shocked by this bare-faced greed. It doesn't help that he is engaged to Valerie, Jardin's daughter. He goes to the extent of threatening his father who promptly disowns him. When Solly is found dead, there is hardly anybody to shed tears for him but the needle of suspicion keeps on shifting from one person to another and it takes Ellery Queen (ostensibly writing a screenplay but basically twiddling his thumbs) to reveal the murderer.

An interesting mystery but Queen's buffoonery repeatedly destroys the tension.

*


First Line: 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.


Title: The Thin Man
Author: Dashiell Hammett
NY: Vintage Books, 1972
First Published:1934
Pages: 198
Source: Open Library
Other books read of the same author: The Maltese Falcon





*

First Line: HOLLYWOOD, like the land of Oz, possesses a quaint and fruity flavor: it is the place where the Christmas trees suddenly sprout round lamp-posts in December under a Ninety degree sun, where restaurants take the shape of lighthouses and hats, ladies on Saturday nights stroll the boulevards in trousers and mink coats leading baby leopards on a leash, where morning newspapers cost 5 cents and evening newspapers two, and people wait in queues for unexhausting hours to witness other people pressing their hands into juicy cement.

Title: The Devil to Pay
Author: Ellery Queen
Publication Details: NY: Pocket Books, 1958
First Published: 1938
Pages: 180
Source: H.M Library [F.Q 20]
Other books read of the same author: (Among others) Cat of Many Tails

6 comments:

  1. Neer, I have read and enjoyed The Thin Man and your summary of the story and the characters is very good. Your review (and the first lines of the book) entice me to read Ellery Queen's The Devil to Pay. I read a lot of his books when I was young, but nothing lately.

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    1. Thank you so much Tracy. Queen's book is good but unfortunately not tense enough for me. :) I discovered Queen only when I started blogging.

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  2. Neeru - I agree with you that The Thin Man is a very entertaining book. Among many other things, I like the witty dialogue in it. I don't think The Devil to Pay is the best Ellery Queen novel if I'm being honest. Still, as you say, the mystery itself is interesting.

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    1. I agree Margot, the best part of THE THIN MAN was the witty repartee between Nora and Nick. I also enjoyed the weirdness, like the two guys jumping jumping on another one in the Speakeasy.

      Queen hasn't been a very satisfying author till date but perhaps I haven't read his best books.

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  3. I love THE THIN MAN - worth pointing out that in fact Prohibition was (just) over by the time the book came out in January 1934 (but only by a month or so)

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    1. Thanks for that tid-bit, Sergio. I'll make the changes in the post.

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