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Onyx reviews: Return of the Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett

The movie adaptation of The Thin Man was produced in less than two weeks and released a few months after Hammett's novel was published. At the time, the idea of blending humor with murder seemed innovative, and both the film and the novel were great successes. Even in the 1930s, Hollywood was eager to capitalize on a sure thing by producing sequels. To tie the follow-up movies to the original, they latched onto the "thin man" motif, even though the title character of the original did not refer (as many believed) to detective Nick Charles. 

The introduction to Return of the Thin Man by Hammett historian Richard Layman sets the context. In the early 1930s, after the release of The Maltese Falcon and other well received novels, Hammett was a literary celebrity and he had a reputation in Hollywood of being able to produce tight scripts.  A former Pinkerton detective who was as heavy a drinker as his famous creations, Hammett was an unreliable writer. He published no more novels after The Thin Man, even though he lived almost thirty years after it was released. He did, however, agree to plot out the early sequels. These treatments, which are an unusual hybrid of narrative fiction and screenplay, are published in this collection for the first time. The book consists of two novellas, "After the Thin Man" and "Another Thin Man," together with a sketchy outline for a rejected proposal called simply "Sequel to the Thin Man," which demonstrates the extent to which Hammett had grown tired of the series characters.

The headnotes and afterwords, written by Hammett's granddaughter Julie M. Rivett, provide a different although occasionally redundant perspective on the stories. They discuss differences between the films and the stories before the reader has had a chance to tackle the treatments, and presuppose familiarity with the films.

These aren't strictly screenplays—they aren't formatted in the sketchy formal style of a script—but neither are thy straight prose. The crisp, distinctive dialog is all there, but the storytelling uses shorthand to convey the action to the eventual screenwriters. There is no internal characterization because scripts don't dip into the characters' minds. Hammett also includes asides and parenthetical comments to explain his intent, and some scenes where a lot of things are happening at once are presented as bullet points. At times, his attention to specific details telegraphs the identity of the killer, since the script treatment isn't designed to be read like a mystery novel.

The stories themselves are classic Hammett. Nick Charles is a former detective who "retired" after he married wealthy heiress Nora. He struggles to fit into the high society associated with Nora's standing, and Nora is sometimes exasperated by Nick's lowbrow past. They bicker, but it is always well-intended and rarely serious. In one scene, Nora tries to make Nick jealous by dancing with one of a number of men expressing interest in her at a club. When the lights go out (something that happens often in these stories), Nick takes advantage of the diversion to sock the guy in the jaw and then pretends it was part of the general tumult.

No matter where they go, the Charleses get involved in murders. In "After the Thin Man," the first victim literally shows up at their front door (in a scene reminiscent of The Maltese Falcon). Their terrier, Asta, is a full participant. Sometimes the dog takes off with a murder weapon clenched between his teeth. In others, his behavior towards certain characters is indicative of their guilt. Nora's pregnancy was introduced as a way of sabotaging the possibility of another sequel, but Nick, Jr. appears in "Another Thin Man," though his parents sometimes treat him with casual neglect and foist him off onto anyone who might look after the one-year-old for a few hours.

The murder scenarios themselves are often complex, requiring a lot of exposition at the end to sort out the details. Hammett scripted some scenes that would have been difficult to orchestrate. One in particular has a character falling out a window while another is on a jury-rigged ladder outside the same window. In the afterword, Rivett reveals that this scene was significantly simplified in the script.

The book description is slightly misleading in presenting these tales as novellas. They are certainly readable—more than the typical script, for example—but they lack the depth that one might expect from a Hammett novel. This book may be of only casual interest to fans of the Thin Man films, but for serious Hammett aficionados it is a welcome addition to the all-too-small collection of his fiction.

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