The Return of the Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett

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The Return of the Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett

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Category: Crime (Historical)
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Hammett's initial offerings for After the Thin Man and Another Thin Man are claimed to be novellas, but they read more as screen plays. The author's wit and dialogue mastery shine through, but they wouldn't read that well other than in the precise context in which the editors set them. As a whole, it holds together well.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 240 Date: November 2012
Publisher: Head of Zeus
ISBN: 9781908800206

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I've recently been discovering the original works of Raymond Chandler which, like many people, I'd only really known from the Hollywood renditions. A natural, if backwards, progression from there was clearly to the writer that Chandler called the ace performer, the man who did over and over again what only the best writers ever do at all.

That man was Dashiell Hammett, creator of the Maltese Falcon and its protagonist the delightfully dark Sam Spade. In publication terms his career seems to go on and on, and yet the fact is that he only wrote five full length novels, all published between 1929 and 1934. Even his short fiction fizzles out under two dozen and was pretty much complete by the same time.

Of course, by then he had published The Thin Man, sold the film rights and got caught up in the Hollywood Studio System, which would serve him as ill as it did the stars of the adaptations.

Samuel Dashiell Hammett (Dashiell was his mother's maiden name) was born into a catholic family in southern Maryland in 1894. He did most of his growing up in Philadelphia and Baltimore. Leaving school at the then normal age of 13 he did the usual round of ad hoc jobs before joining the Pinkerton Detective Agency, staying with them from 1915 to 1922, with a little time out for an attempt at medical corps service towards the end of the Great War: he succumbed to the Spanish Flu epidemic, and compounded it with tuberculosis, thus serving out most of his commission in hospital.

The Pinkerton experience was useful. He's is quoted by Chandler as saying that All my characters were based on people I've known personally, or known about. Certainly what comes over in his work is a gritty realism; even when as in The Thin Man stories it is overlaid with humour and tempered by the morals constraints of the publishers of the day.

Most of his work, even if set elsewhere, is informed by his time in that milieu in San Francisco in the 1920s when crime was harsh but shot-through with a grimy kind of glamour, hinging as much of it did on its connections with old money. Perhaps that is why he eventually stopped writing. The Pinkerton Agency role in strike breaking disillusioned him and post-war he turned his attentions to left wing political activism. This was clearly not a role that would endear him to the studio bosses who'd been funding his later publishing successes.

Besides – it is clear from this volume that their requests and requirements in trying to spin out the Thin Man franchise were simply boring him.

To put this volume in context, we need to start with the original: The Thin Man. Prohibition-era New York. Nick Charles is the son of a Greek immigrant who had been working as Private Investigator until he married wealthy socialite Nora. The couple live the decadent lifestyle of the rich and protected. They have no children but do have a dog (a Schnauzer in the book, a wire haired terrier in the films) called Asta. Dogs clearly weren't Hammett's strong point. A key turning point in one of the episodes in this collection had to have a smaller breed be re-invented as a Wolfhound for the film, in order to make the plot device work. The plot is centred on Charles' reluctant investigation of a murder and is told against a backdrop of banter, witty dialogue and copious amounts of alcohol and shady glamour. In the original telling the Thin Man was Clyde Wynant the lynchpin of the plot… but subsequently Hammett was complicit in allowing the studio to 'fudge' that identification such that in the eyes of the interwar audience at least the epithet was taken to refer to Charles himself.

No apologies for the long intro on this occasion, because knowing the context helps the reader to fully appreciate this little volume.

I came to it cold, expecting a novella or a few short stories, which meant I had a bit of warming up to do before getting properly into it.

The final bit of background is that given on the dust-cover, namely that the two editors have pretty decent credentials. Richard Layman is clearly a Hammett aficionado having written or edited some six prior volumes on the man. Julie M Rivett is Hammett's granddaughter and spokesperson for his estate.

The former gives us the general introduction to put the pieces in context. The latter gives both headnotes and afterwords to the two main pieces, and a headnote to the final short piece.

In many other publications I suspect I would have found these intrusions into the main action just that: intrusive. Here however, they serve their purpose well: to make the reader understand that these pieces were never written as novels and to some extent at least they were – if not under duress exactly, certainly under a need to fulfill the contract.

My own previous experience of Hammett's work was years ago. I had read The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key. I acquired the book expecting something similar. It took a bit of a mental shift therefore to deal with reading screen-plays.

Worse: I wasn't really ready for the light-heartedness of the Nick and Nora stories.

I'm sure that level of ignorance meant I enjoyed them less than I might have done. The interjections of Ms Rivett meant I did enjoy them considerably more than I would have done coming to them completely cold. I salute them for getting the balance right.

There are two main stories. After The Thin Man and Another Thin Man

The first follows hard on the New York exploits of the original story with Nick and Nora returning home to San Francisco on New Year's Eve. Very quickly it is apparent that Nora's cousin's husband has gone missing and the family must avoid scandal at all costs. The errant husband is relatively easily found, but of course there has to be a murder or two along the way. Crosses and double crosses. Nightclub owners, dubious doctors, sleight of hand with what may or may not be the murder weapon. All staple fare of the genre.

The interest for the general reader isn't so much in the story, but in seeing such a story rendered stripped to its absolute bones. Given the 'light comedy' brief for the rendition, dialogue is king, and Hammett was indeed a master. Rarely does he need to give stage direction, assuming, rightly, that the words themselves convey the tone in which they are to be delivered. This is set in the context of the Nick-and-Nora relationship being already firmly established in the target audience's mind, but I'm not sure I have seen the film, and it sparkled for me.

A passing familiarity with the filmic genre is all that is needed to create the visuals. Hammett only troubles himself with scene-setting when it is relevant to the plot.

The first story ends with Nora pregnant. If Hammett thought this would get him out of the rest of the franchise he should have learned from Conan Doyle. If killing off your protagonist doesn't work, simply making them parents hasn't got a hope.

So the happy couple (and the dog) return for Another Thin Man complete with Nicky junior in tow. Kids are always good for a gag or two, and much play of them is made in the story.

In fact, reading between the lines, you can see Hammett already beginning to tire, and trying to make the gags as offensive as possible whilst still being just on the right side of humour. From this distance, the darkness of the rent-a-kid plays closer to home, and yet, in context, is still more funny than anything else.

Again family connections come into play. Colonel MacFay is a financier with maybe some dodgy dealings in his past. He is also responsible for some of Nick and Nora's own investments. He invites the Charles' to spend the weekend at his house on Long Island. He has been receiving warnings or maybe threats from the deliberately shady Phil Church. When he is finally found dead, Church seems to be the obvious suspect, MacFay's housekeeper, adoptive daughter and various other hangers-on all have something to gain from the death.

Classic direction and misdirection ensues.

Nick and Nora frivolity is to the fore as ever. If you accept the premise that this is being played for laughs, the nightclub scenes are shabby-chic delicious, though I'm not sure that even Nick Charles would leave his wife asleep in the park guarded only by a tied-up-terrier.

And perhaps that is one of the things we most need to remember reading these stories. For all the crime and nastiness that gave birth to the ideas for the stories. It is the innocence of the age that allows the humour to work, in a way that these days it simply couldn’t.

The unkind might say that the work is dated.

Classic is a better word.

The final offering is Sequel to the Thin Man – a poor innominate title for a work that JMR can't find much to say about, and clearly Hammett himself really didn't want to write. This one is nowhere near a screenplay. It's scarcely even a treatment. It's an eight-page plot outline, which screams 'if you really want me to, this is what it will look like…' It was rejected out of hand. By me too.

It simply doesn't fit with the earlier work. That isn't a condemnation. It's a vindication. It was written to achieve a specific effect, and it did so. Three more Thin Man films were produced, but done so without the originators involvement.

Who should read this book, and why?

I think anyone with an interest in film noir specifically or in the functioning of the glory days of the Hollywood studio system will gain snippets of insights into how that worked on one particular author. The long prose presented here is only partly what eventually made it to screen and there's scope for student analysis of the differences and reasons for them. Some of those reasons are alluded to in JMR's commentary, but one can't help feeling that it's a mine to be delved deeper.

Lovers of that golden era of Hollywood movies cannot help but be informed by the writing that generated the films.

Those of us inspired and delighted by the Chandler novels, get a bit more of an insight into his inspirations.

For me it has clarified the confusion between the two authors because I now come down clearly on the side of Chandler as the more skillful wielder of language generally and scene setting in particular. That however is to praise him, not in any way to condemn Hammett.

For the general readers: anyone who likes their crime lite might enjoy it. It isn't quite Midsummer Murders, Monk or Murder She Wrote, because there is a touch of social comment if you choose to look hard enough. It's easy to miss though. I suspect these folk would be better off watching the movies.

If you want to see how well the genre is holding up in the 21st century , you could do worse than to check out Die A Little by Megan Abbott

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