Former detective Nick Charles wants no part of the investigation of a missing inventor
– he’d rather spend his Christmas vacation in a pleasant alcoholic daze. But wife
Nora insists, and the tipsy-but-tenacious Charleses are on the case.
At first glance, Hammett’s fifth and final novel seems to have a lighter tone than
The Maltese Falcon or The Glass Key. Closer examination, however, reveals that The
Thin Man is Hammett’s most cynical novel: Nick Charles honestly doesn’t care is the
killer is brought to justice or not.
The Thin Man ushered in the now-familiar genre of the wisecracking husband-and-wife
detective team. Written in two weeks simply because he needed the money, Hammett
based the Nora character on his longtime lover Lillian Hellman (see below).
The 1934 movie version starred William Powell and Myra Loy and spawned a rash of
sequels. The Thin Man also became a popular radio series, and was on television for
a time as well.
Pop quiz: What does The Thin Man have in common with Frankenstein? Answer: Confusion
over to whom the title refers. “Frankenstein” was the mad scientist, not the monster;
the “thin man” was the missing inventor, not Nick Charles. In both cases, movie
sequels only compounded the confusion.
NICK AND NORA AND DASH AND LILY
Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett met in 1930 at a party. Hammett was coming
off of a five-day drunk, yet Hellman was immediately taken with him. Although they
were both married at the time (and Hammett never legally divorced), the two began
a 31-year, on-again-off-again, relationship that would last until Hammett’s death
in 1961. During this time, Hammett abandoned his writing career, while Hellman built
a reputation as a playwright. Following his death, Hellman came to regard Hammett’s
legacy as her personal property. Feeling that her “memories” (both fact-based and
otherwise) should be the only record of Dashiell Hammett’s life, she vigorously obstructed
the writing of any Hammett biography over which she couldn't dictate editorial control.
In addition, through some legal maneuvering, she gained control of all of Hammett’s
copyrights, which she held until her death in 1984. Through additional legal wrangling,
the rights eventually returned to Hammett’s heirs.
THE NOTORIOUS "FIVE WORD QUESTION"
by Stephen Altobello
NORA: Tell me something, Nick. Tell me the truth: when you were wrestling with Mimi,
didn’t you have an erection?
NICK: Oh, a little.
NORA: (laughing) If you aren’t a disgusting old lecher.
Even with a broad-minded reading public, this last exchange was over the top. The
attention it received helped the book become a bestseller. To fan those flames, publisher
Alfred Knopf placed this ad in the New York Times, on January 30, 1934, even signing
(It also helped the book get banned in Canada.) Most subsequent editions—those not
published by Knopf—altered the passage to “…when you were wrestling Mimi, didn’t
you get excited?”
(Excerpted from Stephen Altobello's blog Peel Slowly. To read the full text, click
THE FIRST APPEARANCE
His pulp days behind him, Hammett's Thin Man first appeared (in condensed form) in
Redbook magazine, December 1933 issue.
The Thin Man again appeared in magazine form in (of all places) the February, 15,
1936 issue of Australian Women's Weekly.
SAMPLES OF VARIOUS EDITIONS
Knopf, 1934 (hardback with dust jacket. There was also a version where the red stripe
was green. The later Grosset & Dunlap version was virtually identical.)
AudioPartners, unabridged, read by William Dufris, 2005
AudioGO, unabridged, read by William Dufris, 2011
German edition (details unknown)
The Thin Man, 1934
After The Thin Man, 1936
Another Thin Man, 1939
Shadow of The Thin Man, 1941
The Thin Man goes Home, 1944
Song of The Thin Man, 1947
HAMMETT’S WORK ON THE SEQUELS
Hammett was asked to write the film treatment for the first Thin Man sequel. It
remained unpublished until 1986, when it was serialized in issues 5 and 6 of The
New Black Mask. "After the Thin Man" also appeared (in one chunk this time) in the
UK publication Crime Wave. In 2012, Return of The Thin Man was published. It included
Hammett’s treatments of both After The Thin Man and Another Thin Man.
NICK & NORA ON THE RADIO
The Adventures of The Thin Man was a network radio program (off and on) from 1941
to 1950. Claudia Morgan starred as Nora, while a series of actors (including Les
Damon, David Gothard, Les Tremayne and Joseph Curtain) played Nick. The show never
quite managed to match the quality of The Adventures of Sam Spade.