Return of the Thin Man are actually the "Screen Stories" that were used to write the screenplays for the second and third Thin Man movies produced by MGM. As Screen Stories, the writing contains the witty dialog and the complex plot setup that Dashiel Hammet is known for but the overall writing is less structured and interesting. Rather that being written with the expectation that these stories would be read as novels, the writing is structured to provide details that will be helpful in translating the story to the screen. We still get elements of internal monologue as well as some good sensory description but a lot of the writing felt rather lightweight as compared with Hammett's other works.
The first story, "After the Thin Man", takes place immediately following the first book/film. Nick and Nora are returning to California following their vacation in New York and the mystery they solved involving the Wynants. They return home to a surprise party during which a mystery man is murdered on their doorstep. At the same time, Nick is asked to "very discretely" help find a missing husband for one of Nora's relations. Naturally as time goes on, these two mysteries intertwine. The police try to get Nick to help them while at the same time they seem to feel like he's a nusaince. There is a lot of the same wit and humorous banter between Nick and Nora. The humor is taken to another level by the introduction of Nora's family, most of whom don't like Nick because he's not a socialite and has no discretion. Like the first Thin Man story, this mystery is full of multiple layers of complexity but in the end comes to a satisfying and natural resolution.
The second story in the book, "Another Thin Man" takes place a year or two after the previous story. In this story, Nick and Nora are back in New York City. This time they have another member of the family with them, their new son Nick Jr. Early on, some of Nick's old thug/criminal associates run across them and decide they want to throw a birthday party for Nick Jr. This plot element sits in the background for a while but shows up again as the setting for the climax. In this mystery, Nick and Nora have been invited to visit Colonel MacFay, a man who had previously worked with Nora's father and still has business dealings with the businesses that Nick helps oversee. It's quickly evident that MacFay had alternate motives for inviting the Charleses at this time. It turns out that MacFay has been receiving death threats from an old business partner. Nick casually investigates but seems to decide there's no real threat until MacFay turns up murdered. The District Attorney helps head up the investigation along with his local police force who Nick doesn't know. There are many times that Nick seems to be one of the primary suspects or, if not a suspect there seems to be at least some intent to discredit him. Once again, the bodies, suspects and plot complexities continue to pile up until we have a dramatic conclusion during Nick Jr's birthday party.
There is a third story included in this book as well. Simply titled "Sequel to the Thin Man", this 8 page story is apparently a hasty work pumped out by Hammett after pressure from the movie studio. This short story has some interesting plot points and brief moments of humor but it largely felt "phoned in" and forgettable.
Overall I really enjoyed these screen stories. Almost as interesting as the stories was the commentary from the editor about the production of these stories and the interactions between Hammett, the movie studio and the screenplay writers. Hammett was at the end of his writing career and seemed to be less interested in continuing the saga of Nick and Nora Charles. Compelled by contractual obligations, he did a good job of maintaining the level of intelligent humor and mystery. There were plenty of less pleasant interactions between Hammett and the studios over the pressured censorship to "tone down" his writing by removing some of the alcohol, innuendo and violence. By the end of the third story, the other writers were also tired of the series and tried to end it with the revelation that Nora was pregnant. Instead, the success of the series just required them to write the third story with the inclusion of a baby.
While the writing wasn't as tight or vivid as Hammett's actual novels, the stories here are a lot of fun. I probably won't read these again and again but I'm definitely interested to watch the movies that came as a result of these screen stories. The mystery and plot are just as complex in the screen stories as in the novels so the general story arc is still a fun read. Even though I sometimes felt like I was reading a screenplay rather than a novel, I still had fun with this book and I'm glad these stories were published if only to give additional insight into Hammett's repertoire.
3 out of 5 stars
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