The Return of the Thin Man
By Dashiell Hammett
Head of Zeus, 2012
It is not classic Hammett by any means, but it is good enough, it will do.
There are two complete stories, After the Thin Man and Another Thin Man, both about 100 pages long, and an outline of a third story entitled Sequel to the Thin Man. I would be reluctant to call the two stories novellas, because they’re not strictly speaking literary works, they were not written to be published or widely read. Rather, they were written to be adapted into a screenplay and filmed. So some fellow would come along and read a story then write a screenplay based upon it. Plot details had to be crystal-clear to him, so you’ll find (for example) more expansiveness and less guile than you’d normally get in a Hammett novel or story.
When After the Thin Man and Another Thin Man were released (in 1936 and 1939 respectively) they proved to be highly successful films, due in no small measure to the presence of William Powell, reprising the role of Nick Charles. Approaching the stories on their own, you may well ask: are they as successful for the reader?
Well, in part. They show Hammett’s main strengths: he can vividly paint a scene, create convincing characters and come up with witty, idiomatic dialogue. The banter between Nick and Nora is a highlight. And you will also find some neat vaudeville set-ups and screwball situations, quite surprising because a deft comic touch is not evident in most of Hammett’s other work (The Thin Man and a few stories being the exceptions).
But you’re never really fully immersed in either story in truth, for it always feels like something is just out of focus. For a start, the two stories are written in the present tense, most likely for clarity. You can see the events happening, unfolding before your eyes, but it is somehow all too light. Furthermore, there is too much clutter by way of expansive description and cutesiness (these escapades invariably involving Asta the dog) for it to be classic Hammett. What you yearn for is the great writer’s spare, well-crafted, hardboiled prose.
If you’re like me, you’ll want to read everything that Hammett has written, but be warned that this is not literature, simply because language doesn’t set out to do everything. Then again, screen stories like these (and The Third Man by Graham Greene is another example) are an interesting genre, primarily for what they might reveal about the writer.
The publisher’s description of The Return of the Thin Man can be read here.