Dashiell Hammett created two of the seminal figures in hard-boiled detective fiction: the Continental Op and Sam Spade. But none of his creations proved as endearing as Nick and Nora Charles, the wisecracking crime fighters of The Thin Man, his final novel.
Nora was an heiress, Nick a former detective from the other side of the tracks, and together they made an urbane, irrepressible pair. Though Hammett himself called the couple insufferably smug, the mystery-comedy mix made The Thin Man his most commercially successful book and sparked an equally beloved series of films starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, whose chemistry and sly, sophisticated repartee made the movies Depression-era hits.
Now, for the first time, we have in print the original screen stories Hammett wrote for two of those films – After the Thin Man and Another Thin Man – alongside the very brief, unproduced Sequel to The Thin Man, marketed as novellas and the last long pieces of fiction Hammett ever wrote.
But these pieces are less novellas than some hybrid of scripted dialogue, stage direction and short fiction. Co-editor Julie M. Rivett (Hammetts granddaughter) notes that Hammetts own words appear alongside passages written by screenwriters Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich – so they arent word-for-word his alone.
Still, both of the main stories are pleasures to read – Rivett rightly calls Hammetts dialogue a rare blend of silly and cynical, sloshed and smart – and the film scripts ultimately hewed pretty closely to these texts.
In After the Thin Man, Noras cousin Selma misplaces her husband, and Nicks reluctant investigation reveals love triangles, extortion, murder and more. Another Thin Man centers on Col. Burr MacFay, an old business partner of Noras father, who is being terrorized by a former employee claiming that he dreamed about MacFays death – and then those dreams come true.
Along the way, theres plenty of drinking and flirtation, a few clashes of culture, and not just one of the best-loved pooches in fiction and film, Asta, but also one of the drollest kids, little Nick Jr.
Just as fans get worked up while studying changes to a favorite novel adapted to screen, its exciting to discover in reverse which of Hammetts cleverest choices were left behind by the filmmakers: the corpse that never fell at the Charleses door in the opening party scene of After the Thin Man, the acrobatic sequence that didnt end that film – a Chinese man hanging by stockinged toes from a fire escape to snatch Nora from a killers grasp.
And wouldnt it have been fun if, as Hammett had envisioned for Another Thin Man, Nick Jr. had cried Drunk at everything he didnt like and Gimme at everything he did?
But the movies many fans may find these stories a bit lifeless without Powell and Loy, one of filmdoms great couples, fully embodying these characters – and thats only part of the problem with reading the new collection. Something more central disappoints, too, and Rivett inadvertently provides the key in noting how Hammett drew on The Farewell Murder, one of his Black Mask tales, for the plot of Another Thin Man.
Rivett rightly emphasizes Hammetts dexterity at leavening a hard-boiled story with screwball elements for a fresh concoction. But The Farewell Murder, though hardly a masterpiece, also boasts craftsmanship in each line, precise pacing and an unerring sense of style – a substantially different approach than whats found in these looser, intermittently unfinished screen stories.
Good writing is more than clever plotting sprinkled with witty dialogue, and theres a difference between drafting a tale for other hands to finish and honing your own work as close to perfection as you can get it. Red Harvest, The Maltese Falcon, a handful of Hammetts Black Mask tales – those works aim for that perfection.
These screen stories, meanwhile, were penned not for posterity but for a studio paycheck. The Return of the Thin Man is a fine curiosity but hardly a fresh capstone to Hammetts distinguished career.