Return of the Thin Man

  • Dashiell Hammett
  • Mysterious Press
  • 240 pp.

Published for the first time, these stories featuring the witty Nick and Nora Charles are presented as screenplays.

Reviewed by Phil Harvey

Fans of The Thin Man and other Dashiell Hammett stories —  cinematic or literary — will want to read this book, which contains two Hammett stories that are presented here as screenplays: “After the Thin Man” and “Another Thin Man.” Both were produced as movies in the 1930s, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy as the inimitable Nick and Nora Charles. These hits were sequels to the wildly successful original “The Thin Man,” adapted from the novel of that name. But, unlike the novel, these stories have not previously appeared in print.

For those who are not familiar with Nick, Nora and their dog, Asta, a brief word. Hammett created Nick Charles and his wife Nora in the depths of the Depression, which may partly explain the appeal of this urbane and always witty couple. Nick comes from a proletarian background but is educated, articulate and utterly at home in black tie, holding a stiff scotch.  Nora was high-born, often described as a former debutante, her family very wealthy indeed. The stories mix comedic lines and situations with gruesome murders in a way that millions have found appealing.  Here’s a characteristic Nick/Nora exchange following a speakeasy owner’s threat to eject Nick:

Speakeasy owner:  “Have you ever been thrown out of a place, Mr. Charles?”

Nick:   “How many places was it up to yesterday, Mrs. Charles?”

Nora:  “How many places have you been in, Mr. Charles?”

You get the idea. He’s tough; they are (usually) funny.

Although the book jacket refers to “After the Thin Man” and “Another Thin Man” as novellas, they are best described as screenplays. Here’s a sample:

There is a sound of a shot from outside.

Nick starts and goes to the window. Nora goes with him.  On the sidewalk below, Church is lying dead. Not far from him stands Smitty, staring at him. Near her on the sidewalk is a pistol. Dum-Dum is running away; as he reaches the corner a policeman jumps out and grabs him.

Those who read these stories after having seen the two movies will note differences. Hammett’s versions, written for MGM and reproduced here pretty much as he wrote them, were edited for the screen by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, partly to satisfy the censors who frowned on sex, drinking, too much violence and Asta’s tendency to urinate on the shoes of people he doesn’t like. Much of the drinking and violence survived the edits; dog peeing, mercifully, was cut. (Such details are very helpfully revealed in this book’s notes.)

The plot of “After the Thin Man,” the longer screenplay, is complex, and without actors to flesh out the characters, hard to follow. But Hammett’s formula holds. Nick and Nora retain their wit, character and repartee, and the tiresome Asta tags along.

The plot of “Another Thin Man” is more satisfying and memorable. Nick and Nora have a baby, which surely upset some of their fans at the time. The story takes place, mostly, in Colonel Burr MacFay’s Long Island estate. MacFay is a wealthy businessman who whines perpetually about threats to his life as the characters (and the likely killer) congregate for dinner, drinks and mayhem.  Someone else’s dog is killed. We meet McFay’s beautiful daughter, her fiancé, a clerk who is secretly in love with her, some thugs and other seedy types, and, finally, the police.  The surprise ending is satisfying in an Agatha-Christie-like way, though neither it nor the ending of “After the Thin Man” can match the masterful denouement in the original “The Thin Man.”

These screenplays and, I expect, most others, do not make for satisfying reading. Without the actors, we don’t feel we know the characters, and don’t care very much about them. Aficionados of Nick and Nora Charles may not mind this, and for those who have seen the movies, it will be easy to envision William Powell and Myrna Loy, the stars of all of them, in these roles. But most readers need more visual cues and more character depth than a screenplay offers.

Still, this previously unpublished material will be an important addition to the collections of those who find Nick and Nora Charles as endearing and enduring as millions have since the 1930s.

Phil Harvey’s short stories have appeared in 15 publications. His new novel, Show Time, was published in May.

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