Penzler Pick, December 1999: In the world of literature, there are many famous books that few people have actually read. Do you know anyone who has read Ulysses cover to cover? Tom Jones? The Good Earth? When it comes to mysteries, however, the greatest books are not just titles that rattle around in the head. They have been read and often reread. We know the characters, and we know the stories. Everyone has read The Maltese Falcon and The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and The Thin Man.

What? You haven't read Dashiell Hammett's last and funniest book? Sure, you saw the movie—in fact, you've seen the whole series—but you somehow never got around to reading the book? You should. All the wit of Nick and Nora is there, and the plot from the book needed no change to make the film one of the greatest American mystery comedies ever.

You probably already know that the Thin Man is not actually Nick Charles, but Clyde Wynant, a successful inventor who has disappeared. When his daughter asks for help in finding him, Nick refuses. He's retired from being a private detective, having married the very wealthy Nora, and he is intent on spending his days and nights drinking, dancing, playing, and looking after his wife's fortune. Nora persuades him to take the case because she thinks it would be great fun. And it is—especially for the reader. While generally regarded as the most lightweight of Hammett's five novels (it is), it is also the second most entertaining (after The Maltese Falcon). Try it for a great sense of the good life in the New York of the 1930s. —Otto Penzler