Return of the Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett is a traditional detective story anthology containing two unpublished novellas featuring private investigator Nick Charles and his wife Nora (available November 6, 2012).
One would be justified in asking what these stories have to offer to the modern reader almost seven decades after they were conceived. The answer is: a lot. First, they give us the chance to rediscover the work of an old master. Second, they offer the opportunity to learn more about him and his love-hate relationship with the movie industry. Third, they showcase the book’s links to the movies, through the thorough introductions by Richard Layman and Julie M. Rivett.
And let’s not forget about the humor:
1st Reporter: “Going to keep on with the detective work, Nick?”
Nick: “No. I’ve retired. Just going to take care of my wife’s money so I’ll have something in my old age.”
2nd Reporter: “You took that Wynant case in New York.”
Nick: “I just did that for my wife. She wanted some excitement.”
1st Reporter, turning to Nora: “I guess you had some excitement all right.”
Nora: “It was wonderful. Two men tried to kill him.”
Nick gives Nora a look. A big ex-prizefighter pushes his way through the crowd. He is Harold, the Charleses’ chauffeur. He is very correctly dressed in uniform, and chewing gum as fast as his jaws will let him.
This dialogue comes at the beginning of After the Thin Man, just as Nick and Nora Charles arrive in San Francisco, in a story that concerns a gardener murdered under mysterious circumstances.
Nick and Nora are an unconventional couple in almost every way there is. She’s rich, he’s not. She has manners, he tries (not too hard) to. She has class, he… wants a glass, and they complement each other.
Nora: “All I want is a hot bath.”
Nick: “I will take a hot bath and a cold drink.”
Theirs seems to be a match made in an author’s imaginary heaven:
Nora: “Pack these, will you, Nickie?”
Her filmy nightgown and negligee come flying at him from the bathroom. He extricates himself from them.
He rolls them casually into a ball and stuffs them in the open bag. He picks up the cocktail shaker, still three-quarters full, and looks at it lovingly.
Nick: “I hate to leave this.”
Nora, anxiously from the lavatory: “Oh, don’t leave anything.”
Nick puts the top of the cocktail shaker on, and looks for something to wrap it in. He catches sight of Nora’s dress hanging on the wall. He puts his hand out toward it.
Nick: “Going to wear this dress?”
Nora’s voice: “No. You can put that in.”
He takes down the dress, wraps the cocktail shaker lovingly in it, and stuffs it in the bag, enthusiastically viewing the result.
The man loves his cocktails, that’s for sure. And he does love his wife—who used to know the victim—a lot, so, though reluctant at first, in the end he agrees to investigate the murder. However, this is not going to be a simple case to solve. He’ll first have to meet some questionable characters, listen to the sorry stories of the unavoidable femmes fatales, and of course drink until he drops; as if that could ever happen. Or could it?
There’s not too much humor in Another Thin Man, the second novella, but that doesn’t make the story any less interesting.
The events here take place in the greater New York area. Nick and Nora are invited to Colonel Macfay’s mansion, dragging along with them their one-year- old son Nick Jr. Someone has threatened to kill the colonel and everybody in his household seems truly afraid. Sam Church, the man behind the threat, claims he spent ten years in jail because of the colonel. The colonel pleads his innocence.
Right from the start Nick thinks there’s something fishy going on; that there’s more to the story than what those involved let on. People are lying all the time, they contradict each other, and they all seem to have their own agenda. He’s not sure he can trust any of them.
Things get even worse when a child goes missing and Nick comes to realize that in order to solve the case he has to put some dangerous things in motion; things that will either lead to the truth or a complete disaster.
In this story, as in the previous one, women have important roles to play. They are not here just to stand by their men, but they are determined souls out gunning for goals of their own: they are charming and deceitful, faithful and cunning, fragile and unwavering.
At the end of the book we find, as a bonus I’d say, not a story, but the outline of one, titled Sequel to the Thin Man. It was supposed to provide the material for yet another Thin Man movie starring William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora, but by then Hammett was so sick of Hollywood that he never really tried to write what he was supposed to. Just by reading this piece one could very easily imagine the author, holding a glass of whisky in one hand and wearing a cheeky smile on his face, pointing his finger like a gun at the man, whoever that may be.
This book was really a pleasure to read and it made me want to revisit the Thin Man movies as well. As they say, some things age well, just as some people do, so I cannot help but wonder if I’ll enjoy the movies just as much as I enjoyed the stories in this volume.
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Lakis Fourouklas has published four novels and three short-story collections in Greek. He’s currently translating his work into English and blogs at Fiction & More. He also keeps a few blogs in Greek regarding general fiction, Japanese literature, and crime fiction. Follow him on Twitter:@lakisf. He lives in the wilderness of Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Read all posts by Lakis Fourouklas for Criminal Element.