Book review: The Return of the Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett

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CAN you imagine the excitement when previously unpublished work from the pen of Dashiell Hammett was found nestling amongst the papers of US publisher Otto Penzler?

The Return of the Thin Man

by Dashiell Hammett

Head of Zeus, 240pp, £12.99

One of the foremost practitioners of the hard-boiled detective story, described by the New York Times as “the dean of the school of hard-boiled fiction”, Hammett only produced five novels in his literary career. I don’t mean to be sniffy about it, amongst those are included The Maltese Falcon and the work in which Hammett introduced the iconic figures of “the Continental Op” and Sam Spade. Not exactly a shabby achievement. Still, though, it isn’t exactly a huge back catalogue, so the unearthing of new work – two previously unpublished film treatments of the first two Thin Man sequels and a brief synopsis of an unfilmed sequel – has got to be good news, surely?

The honest answer is, well, kind of.

It’s not that there is no pleasure to be had from The Return of the Thin Man, edited by Richard Layman, Hammett’s foremost biographer, and Julie M Rivett, professional editor and Hammett’s granddaughter. There are twisting plots and a fine cast of supporting characters, especially the hoodlums and dames with names as phoney as their hair colour. It’s just that as I read I couldn’t help but wish that it was much better than it is.

The Thin Man was Hammett’s final novel. Having finished with his formal education by the time he was 13, it was his experience in a succession of menial jobs – freight clerk, railroad labourer, stevedore – as well as his on/off work for the legendary Pinkerton Agency which provided the backdrop and the grit for his detective fiction.

Hammett’s stories came from the wrong side of the tracks, he took the intellectualised, you might say quaint, detective novel and unceremoniously drop-kicked it into the gutter of the mean city streets. In doing so, he created a link between crime fiction and contemporary urban culture that has permeated the genre ever since.

Hammett’s model was honed while writing stories for Black Mask magazine and continued through his novels, Red Harvest (1929), The Dain Curse (1929), The Maltese Falcon (1930) and his penultimate novel, The Glass Key (1931), which was described by the New York Times as combining “the tradition of Sherlock Holmes with the style of Ernest Hemmingway” and was Hammett’s personal favourite. But it was publication of The Thin Man (1934) that led Hammett to Hollywood. Indeed, MGM paid $21,000 (£13,100) for the movie rights just eight days after the novel was published – one of the interesting facts revealed in Layman and Rivett’s fine introductory essays – which at the height of the Depression would be equivalent to $350,000 (£218,300) in today’s money.

The novel focused on ex-detective Nick Charles and his glamourous wife, Nora, with additional support from their Schnauzer, Asta. The tone of The Thin Man was lighter than Hammett’s previous novels, gone was the cynicism, the despair and the politics of The Glass Key and in came cocktails, glamour and sparkling repartee.

“Nora: “How do you feel?”

Nick: “Terrible. I must’ve gone to bed sober.”

It was perfect fodder for a romantic comedy caper and the movie – shot in just 14 days and released only five months after the novel came out – starred William Powell and Myrna Loy. It was a huge success, picking up a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Picture, but it was a world away from the brutal and bleak worldview Hammett explored in his earlier novels, which for me, makes it less interesting. The Thin Man stories are formulaic and although the formula is a good one – reluctant, hard-drinking, wisecracking ex-private dick gets pulled into solving crimes, bringing along gorgeous wife and cheeky pooch as back-up – if you’ve enjoyed Hammett’s more creative and demanding prose, the shine wears off pretty quickly. It’s worth noting that Hammett stopped writing Thin Man stories after the second sequel since he too was tired of the set-up.

Lillian Hellman, with whom Hammett had a volatile, 30-year affair, and to whom The Thin Man is dedicated, addressed why Hammett stopped writing novels after his fifth published work in an introduction to a compilation of the writer’s work:

“I have been asked many times over the years why he did not write another novel after The Thin Man. I do not know. I think, but I only think, I know a few of the reasons: he wanted to do a new kind of work; he was sick for many of those years and getting sicker. But he kept his work, and his plans for work, in angry privacy and even I would not have been answered if I had ever asked, and maybe because I never asked is why I was with him until the last day of his life.”

So is it a pity, then, that the rediscovered work is connected to The Thin Man? Maybe a little. There is another problem too. As film treatments rather than novellas, these stories were meant to be read by a director rather than a reader. The dialogue ripples and flexes as you’d expect from Hammett but the description and narrative texture is thin since Hammett’s intention was to guide the process of filming rather than to provide a satisfying read.

A Thin Man moment is upon us it seems - Johnny Depp is set to appear as Nick Charles in a movie to be released next year and it might be that the charms of Nick and Nora will enthrall a new audience. But I can’t help but hope that the apparent discovery of yet more unpublished short stories in the Hammett Archives held at the University of Texas-Austin, take us back to Hammett’s harder-boiled heart.