Return of the Thin Man, edited by Dashiell Hammett scholar Richard Layman and Hammett’s granddaughter Julie M. Rivett, collects the two Dashiell Hammett screen stories that became the films After the Thin Man (1936) and Another Thin Man (1939).
What do you think Hammett would make of the current state of Hollywood and moviemaking?
My grandfather didn’t like Hollywood. I can’t imagine he’d find it any more palatable today. Even then, in the 1930s, the culture of celebrity was astonishing and unnerving. But the money was tempting beyond what he or most struggling writers could bear.
What makes Nick Jr., the son of Nick and Nora Charles, such a successful child character?
My grandfather genuinely liked children—real ones—though he rarely wrote about them. It was screenwriters Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich who injected Nora’s pregnancy at the close of After the Thin Man. They’d hoped that parenthood would quash Nick and Nora’s further adventures. Obviously, that plan backfired. Hammett’s requisite inclusion of a child in Another Thin Man worked out well because Nick Jr. was completely unsentimental, especially in the screen story. He’s pudgy, unresponsive, humorless, a small straight man rather than an adorable sidekick.
Over the years, there has been some popular confusion about the identity of the thin man, whether it was Hammett, Nick Charles, or Clyde Wynant, the murder victim in the original novel. Do you think Hammett played to the ambiguity?
There’s no question that he participated in the game. The photo of my grandfather on the jacket of Knopf’s first edition of The Thin Man—the same one we use on Return of the Thin Man—was deliberately confusing. And effective publicity! My grandfather was a celebrity in those days and high fodder for the tabloids. Sure, he went along with the joke. It sold books and raised the odds for big advances down the line.
Who do you think are Hammett’s literary heirs?
For Op- or Spade-like imperfect heroes struggling to find just paths through imperfect worlds, I’d vote for James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux, Declan Hughes’s Ed Loy, and James Ellroy’s Lloyd Hopkins. For tight, witty language, there’s Carl Hiaason, Joseph Wambaugh, and the late great Joe Gores. For well-crafted dark, existential worlds, try Dennis Lehane, Kelli Stanley, Michael Koryta, Daniel Woodrell. Among mainstream authors, count in Margaret Atwood, who read and reread Hammett in her youth, and Paul Auster, who has attached himself to my grandfather’s philosophical underpinnings. In looking at that list, common ground has less to do with crime than it does the lives and language of characters in the face of insoluble situations. But, really, isn’t that the gist of all good literature?