Thursday, August 27, 2015

Dashiell Hammett’s “Return of the Thin Man”

Noir detective fiction reigned supreme in America in the 1920s and 1930s, and remained popular through most of the 1950s. And the author who was the acknowledged master of this genre was Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961).

The former Pinkerton detective turned to writing detective stories when he was afflicted with tuberculosis, a disease that would plague him most of his adult life. He wrote stories for “the pulps” – popular detective magazines and a series of novels that set the standard for noir fiction, and in fact likely still set the standard.

He published Red Harvest in 1929, followed by The Dain Curse that same year. Then came The Maltese Falcon in 1930, The Glass Key in 1931, and The Thin Man in 1934. The novels are written tightly and concisely, and are full of action, unexpected turns, and a fair amount of violence. (One of Hammett’s fellow noir writers, Philip Marlowe, gave this writing advice to authors facing writing blocks: “When in doubt, have to men come in the door with guns.”) A group of his stories was published as The Continental Op.

Hammett posed for the cover of The Thin Man.
Hammett’s influence on writers – and on the movies – extended far beyond noir fiction. He’s considered so influential, in fact, that Library of America has published a volume of his novels and a volume of his short stories.

My first awareness of Dashiell Hammett was watching The Thing Man movies of the 1930s and early 1940s on television. Starring William Powell as detective Nick Charles and Myrna Loy as his wife Nora, the movies were widely popular when they were first released. If you’re familiar with the movies at all, it’s almost impossible to see anyone but William Powell when you read the Hammett novel.

I discovered Hammeett as a writer in the 1970s, during a resurgence of the novels of the glory days of noir fiction. I also discovered the Dashiell Hammett who was in love with playwright Lillian Hellman and the Hammett who went to prison rather than divulge names to a congressional committee during the Red Scare of the late 1940s and early 1950s.

In the last few years, additional writings have turned up in archives and various closets, including two “movie books” written for the scripts of “After the Thin Man” and “Another Thin Man,” both commissioned by MGM Studios. Movie books were essentially novellas written to help the scriptwriters develop and finalize a script. Both of these movie books, and related materials, never previously made public, were published in 2012 as Return of the Thin Man.

Dashiell Hammett
The stories are less novellas than they are movie and Dashiell Hammett artifacts. They even contain periodic filming instructions and parenthetical statements instructing the scriptwriters how to develop particular scenes. Accompanying the stories are headnotes and afterwords by the editors, Richard Layman and Julie M. Rivett.

The stories reflect the public tastes in movies in the time period they were released. They often seem formulaic, with “thugs and dames” getting themselves mixed up with the wealthy (and, in one of the stories, even with Nora’s very proper family). The genius of the stories lies not so much in the stories themselves as it does in how Hammett developed the interaction between and relationship of Nick and Nora Charles, which steal the story and also stole the movies. The dialogue involving their back-and-forth is still fascinating today, underscoring how much Hammett could communicate by what wasn’t said as much as by what was.

For fans of noir fiction, it’s a must-read. For those interested in how a master writer developed dialogue, it’s also a must-read. For those of us fascinated with the genre and the period, not to mention what Hammett achieved, it’s a significant contribution to understanding.

Photograph: Myrna Loy and William Powell in The Thin Man.

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