Get the skinny on The Thin Man.

Picking the wrong mystery for One Book, One Denver

Okay, so the Looper and his bookworms wanted something "adventurous" for this year's One Book, One Denver. Like a mystery. So why not Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man?

Hammett, after all, is the dean of the American hardboiled private eye novel. As his admirer Raymond Chandler famously said, Hammett took murder out of the parlor (where nice English ladies like Agatha Christie served it up with buttered scones) and put it back in the gutter, where it belongs. And The Thin Man is as charming as hardboiled gets; it's got the quick-witted quipping between Nick and Nora Charles, some earnest discussion of what it feels like to be stabbed or shot, and even some filler material about Alfred Packer to make it seem tenuously connected to Colorado.

But adventurous? Nah.

As Michael Roberts pointed out in this appraisal of the pick, The Thin Man isn't even Hammett's best mystery. Red Harvest, with its mob war in the mythical Montana town of Poisonville, based on Hammett's days as a Pinkerton strikebreaker in Butte, is a bit closer to the spirit of raw Rocky Mountain prose. It also has the advantage of being scarcely read. Both The Thin Man and The Maltese Falcon suffer from having been deeply studied by Hollywood; both books have some nifty plot twists, but they're old hat to anyone who's seen the movies or the many imitations that followed -- meaning just about every film buff in Denver.

So maybe it didn't make sense to pick a local mystery writer -- John Dunning, say, or Rex Burns or Michael Stone or Marianne Wesson or Stephen White. There's no shame in admitting that none of them are up to the master's caliber, and picking one would only slight the others. Unfortunately, many of the best noir mystery novels aren't readily available in paperback, and some of the most adventurous contemporary crime writers, like James Ellroy and George Pelecanos, are a bit too hardboiled for a citywide read. But it would be nice to have a mystery that has some local atmosphere and doesn't have moss sticking out of its ears.

Here's my proposed alternative read for those of you who already know The Thin Man by heart: It's the story of private dick C.W. Sughrue's adventures tracking a wayward girl through the bars, communes, jails and porn shops of the American West, with a stop on East Colfax. And it has one of the best first lines since the days of James M. Cain: "When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon."

That's The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley, and Hollywood hasn't spoiled it. -- Alan Prendergast

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