Plotting/ StructureResearch

When the Movie Trumps the Book: Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man By Beth Daniels, aka Beth Henderson, J.B. Dane and Nied Darnell

I’ve had Dash Hammett’s The Thin Man on my shelves to read for a really long time. Years, in fact. The reason I bought it was that I really like the old William Powell/Myrna Loy Thin Man movies and wondered whether the original book had the same snappy, quippy dialogue back and forth between Nick and Nora Charles.

In case you’re wondering, yep, it does. Rather like romantic comedy heaven, though this is more of a hardboiled detective tale. One of the first, actually.

Hammett is one of the “fathers” of the noir detective novel, the ones with the tough guys who end up with cases that feature long-legged, slinky clients that seem innocent on the surface but are they really? Sam Spade is another of Hammett’s creations.

Oddly enough, the 1930s was not an era of serials when it came to this type of detective novel although there were plenty of pulp fiction magazines featuring these sort of lead characters, and returning characters weren’t something new.

Heck, Edgar Allan Poe, the father of the detective story, wrote three short stories featuring French sleuth C. Auguste Dupin back in the 1840s. Conan Doyle gave us a lot of stories about a sleuth he attempted to kill off because he hated the guy – you know, Sherlock Holmes – but had to bring him back to life because the public kept clamoring for new stories and it’s damn hard to turn down a demand for your cash cow.

But Hammett didn’t do repeats, though the movie studios knew a winning couple when they saw one and cranked out more Thin Man movies. Oddly enough, the “thin man” in Hammett’s book isn’t Nick Charles, though using “The Thin Man” tag on the rest of the movies certainly identified the series and thus seemed like it was referring to him. No, the “thin man” in Dash’s tale was the guy everyone was looking for, figuring he’d bumped off his secretary/sweetheart then done a vanishing act. The whole story is about the search for the missing man to solve her murder.

Now, because I’ve watched The Thin Man movie more than once, I knew where this missing man was, but I’d forgotten who actually dunnit. I think it was where the “thin man” was that impressed me.

Here’s where the warning about spoilers needs to go.

I’m going to give ya the goods on how the book is both good and bad to use as a model for a modern noir detective set up, and what they changed in the movie and what was good and bad about it. Remember, I also noted that this had a romantic comedy element to it, so the idea of looking this over isn’t all that out there for many of us.

Hammett’s style is short sentences for the most part.

The back and forth is priceless in painting the characters to life. Nick Charles is around 40 and used to be a detective for an agency in New York City, where this story plays out. But he went west to San Francisco, met Nora (possibly through doing a case for her wealthy father – they managed to hang on to their funds despite the crash of the market in ’29), who is now 26. They’ve been married for six to seven years so it sounds like she was a bit of a child bride with the age discrepancy. Her father died and Nick inherited the job of running the family lumber and railroad business and retired from being a detective to do so. And seems to be doing a good job of it. Still, there are guys in NYC who remember what a good “dick” he was, even the ones he caught and sent “up the river” – which is where the prison is – up the Hudson from NYC, in one of the old Dutch settlements on the river. Ossining, I think it’s called. The town, not the prison.

Nick and Nora both drink a lot be it gin, whiskey, martinis, or wine. They’ve come to NYC for the Christmas/New Years Eve holidays to escape having to do the holidays with Nora’s family, most of the members of which Nick really doesn’t like. One gets the impression the feeling might go both ways, though it’s never mentioned. He would have been seen as snagging Nora for her money, and he does make jokes about having married her for her money, though it’s always clear that he’s joking – be it in the book or in the movie. She thinks he’s wonderful and is totally enthralled with the idea of solving a crime while they are in NYC, though he wishes he could avoid being involved. However, he knew the missing man, and the lawyer and the family and everyone expects him to find the guy.

In the book, he does go around interviewing people, asking questions, but spends a lot of time with the NYPD detective assigned to the case, sometimes the two of them going on an interview together but more frequently not.

The book version has the missing man’s 20-year-old daughter acting like a real nut case, going out to what they are still calling speakeasys, probably from habit, and the atmosphere seems open rather than shady. (Prohibition ended in 1933, the year Hammett wrote this tale.) And they go from high-class joints to ones that really merit the term “joint”. Anyway, the daughter keeps going off with any man who asks if she wants to hit a different joint, and sometimes she never goes home, though it seems more a case of heading to her aunt’s house rather than the apartment shared with mother, brother, and stepfather. Once she inserts herself into Nick and Nora’s lives, she tends to stay over with them in their hotel suite. In the movie, she’s been toned down. Still very worried about her father but they gave her a fiancé and cleaned up her act.

What moviegoers link to Nick and Nora is their white terrier dog, Asta, who was always with them.

In the film versions, they took Asta with them nearly everywhere, took him for walks. In the movie, Nick takes Asta with him to sniff out clues at the missing man’s closed up shop where he invented things. And Asta’s the one to lead Nick to a spot where Nick discovers a suspiciously freshly poured bit of cement flooring around the same dimensions as a grave.

In the book, Asta is female, is occasionally lose in the hotel suite to sniff trouser legs and get petted, but the dog has no reason to be even included in the story. She does nothing. Is usually shuffled off to a place elsewhere in the hotel every night. There are no walks taken with her. She isn’t involved in giving aid to the investigation.

If Hammett turned this story into a modern editor one of the things they’d tell him is “get rid of the dog. It doesn’t contribute to the plot.” In the movie version, Asta does contribute.

You’ll note I said “one of the things”, which implies that an editor wouldn’t like something else.

Well, there is a section when the missing man’s son (a real weirdo) asks Nick about cannibalism in the west. What Hammett proceeds to give us in a multi-page section about something that happened in the 1870s where a man was convicted of cannibalism (eating his fellow travelers while stranded in the mountains – a very Donner Party sort of thing, though the Donner group did it in the late 1840s) that has absolutely nothing to do with the case of the missing thin man or the murder of his secretary. A modern editor would put a big red X through this part. It might even put them off making an offer on the book.

In the movie, Nick gathers everyone around a table and makes it sound like one after another of them killed the thin man and the secretary. Naturally, he saves the reveal on who actually dunnit for the final person at the table.

In the book, the police basically solve the crime by following where Nick points them. He isn’t the one who discovers the body of the thin man, doesn’t discover that the stepfather is not using his right name and has a first wife in Boston, and there is no awesome, dramatic reveal. The police just go arrest the murderer without the reader being there to watch them do it. Nick goes back to the hotel and spends pages upon pages of explaining it all to Nora, which isn’t exciting in the least.

Usually, we writers and many readers say, “the book was better than the movie.” Well, to 21st-century eyes, the 1934 movie surpasses Dash Hammett’s late 1933 “masterpiece”. Why does it? The denouement scene, the detective actually finding the body, the dog actually having a reason to be included in the cast, and the lack of trivial data that has nothing to do with the storyline (that 60-year-old info dump on cannibalism in America that has no relation to anything in the plot of The Thin Man).

The message being, keep all parts of your story relevant and your reader satisfied by the final page.

Visit Beth at www.RomanceAndMystery2.com, www.JBDaneAndNiedDarnell.com, www.WritingSteampunk.com, and www.Muse2Ms.com where retired workshops hang out.


Love this?

Check out Beth’s classes and events!


Raven’s Moon

Otherworld evil is loose in the real world. Bram Farrell, Private Investigator, must track it down and destroy it before it destroys him.

Bram Farrell has starred in twenty bestselling novels by writer—and witch—Calista Amberson. Her fans love the tall, dark, and handsome PI who vanquishes supernatural bad guys using his magical powers. So, when Calista uses her magic to pull Bram from his fictional world into real-world, modern-day Detroit, she rocks both worlds.

Every supernatural being on Earth felt his arrival in this dimension. They don’t trust Calie’s intentions and Bram doesn’t either. When the supernatural community hands him the job of discovering who killed the beings in the real world that match those he killed in each volume of The Raven Tales, he takes on the task. It’s a job he’s done in twenty books—he’s up to the familiar challenge.

Bram’s investigation turns up a lot of suspicious characters grouchy bar-owning trolls, a thirsty vampire godfather, a couple of murderous x-cage fighters, a suspicious minister¬¬—and the Devil himself. Things are getting dicey: Bram could use some help with this job—but whom can he trust?
Fans of Jim Butcher will fall hard for Bram and Raven’s Moon.

Buy this book!

Long time Savvy Author workshop presenter, Beth Daniels, got her first call from an editor offering a contract early in September 1989 and continues t...