RETURN OF THE THIN MAN is more than an historic literary document. The volume consists of two works written by Dashiell Hammett following the film adaption of his iconic novel, THE THIN MAN. The creations, titled “After the Thin Man” and “Another Thin Man,” are screen stories, somewhere between novellas and screenplays, that were written by Hammett for film sequels following the grand success of the original movie. Though almost 80 years have passed since they were written, it’s amazing how well the prose stands and dances across the printed page.
"Aficionados of Hammett’s writing and mystery students of any level will find much to enjoy and contemplate here."
“After the Thin Man” is set in San Francisco, beginning but a few moments after Nick and Nora Charles and their dog Asta arrive by train from New York. A surprise welcome home party for them is marred by a murder that occurs literally on their doorstep. It is connected to Nora’s cousin, Selma, who has married neither wisely nor well, and whose philandering husband all too soon becomes the second victim. Selma is suspected of the murder, and it is up to Nick to prove the contrary. He goes about this task with great aplomb, wisecracking and bearding Nora’s family at every turn --- they feel that Nora has married far below her station, and even Nick would agree --- expressing somewhat less than the expected gravitas for such a task until the climax of the piece, when the true murderer is revealed.
“Another Thin Man” takes place in New York State, where Nick, Nora, Asta and the newly arrived Nick, Jr. are visiting the mansion of Colonel MacFey, a former business partner of Nora’s late father. MacFey is a grumpy curmudgeon who is totally lacking in insight and who seems to consider the world and everyone in it to be his personal doormat. He is also in fear of his life, and events quickly demonstrate that he possibly is not totally lacking in insight after all. This is a somewhat darker and better tale than “After the Thin Man,” though it shares its predecessor’s penchant for witty dialogue from the sharp-tongued, almost constantly inebriated Nick, who still demonstrably retains the wherewithal to pull himself together when the occasion demands, blood alcohol ratio notwithstanding. There is a bit of a fish-out-of-water element to this story as well, and though paternity does not seem to have compelled Nick to change his hedonistic ways, he nonetheless demonstrates that he takes his fatherly duties seriously.
The format of these two novellas takes a bit of getting used to, a matter that is resolved within the first few pages of “After the Thin Man.” The dialogue is written in screenplay form, and some scenes are told rather than shown, as the directive goes. Still, Hammett’s ability to write sharp dialogue shines through after lo these many decades; it still brings a laugh. There is also arguably a contemporary connection: while Robert B. Parker’s Spenser is often compared to Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe, one can draw a direct line from Nick and Nora Charles to Spenser and Susan as well.
And while the two previously unpublished works that comprise the balance of RETURN OF THE THIN MAN would be worth the price of admission alone, there is the lagniappe of an introduction by Richard Layman. There are also headnotes and footnotes for each novella by Julie M. Rivett, which provide background into Hammett’s life and creative process --- warts and all --- as these works were being written, as well as the variations between Hammett’s stories and the film versions.
Aficionados of Hammett’s writing and mystery students of any level will find much to enjoy and contemplate here.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on November 9, 2012