I’ve been intimate with the Thin Man films since I was 13. And “intimate” is a good way to put it: it’s easy to feel close to such a hip couple as Nick and Nora Charles, as vividly portrayed by William Powell and Myrna Loy. They’re funny, smart and incredibly sexy (especially Ms. Loy. Whoa). The series of films is considered to be one of Hollywood’s strongest and most consistently entertaining. Still I’m surprised how few people I’ve met who’ve also read the book, written by Dashiell Hammett and published in 1934 (a mere five months before the first Thin Man film was released).
The book was Hammett’s fifth crime novel in as many years and was an instant bestseller (more below on the reasons why). There are many similarities between the book and the film, although mainstream literature of the day was even spicier than pre-code cinema. For example, although Nick and Nora drink heavily in the film, it’s a drop in the (ice) bucket compared to the book: with over 20 references to cocktails in the first 7 pages alone, Hammett’s prose is enough to make Don Draper order a Shirley Temple.
The book is more of a mystery with comic undertones, whereas the film plays more like a comedy with a mystery attached to it. (Well, not exactly, but I’m always surprised how The Thin Man tends to be referred to as one of the great screwball comedies of the 30s.) Like the film, the witty repartee between Nick and Nora is the key to its charm. 1 Screenwriters Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich take that sexy banter as written by Hammett and run with it. For example, here’s Nick and Nora’s first conversation in the book…
Dorothy Wynant said she had to go back to her table. She…patted the dog’s head and left us.
We found a table. Nora said: “She’s pretty.”
“If you like them like that.”
She grinned at me. “You got types?”
“Only you, darling—lanky brunettes with wicked jaws.”
“And how about the red-head you wandered off with at the Quinns’ last night?”
“That’s silly,” I said. “She just wanted to show me some French etchings.”
Which Hackett and Goodrich stretched out to this…
And this is why I urge fans of the Thin Man films to read the book: thanks to the wonderful chemistry between its lead actors, when you read the book, you can hear Powell and Loy saying the lines, even the racier ones that were removed or watered down for the film. Here some examples of the book’s more unusual exchanges, most the kind you wouldn’t hear even in pre-code films:
NICK: How about a drop of something to cut the phlegm?
NORA: Why don’t you stay sober today?
NICK: We didn’t come to New York to stay sober. Want to see a hockey game tonight?
NORA: (tasting a speakeasy drink and shuddering) Do you suppose this could be the ‘bitter vetch’ they used to put in cross-word puzzles? [Google it.]
NICK: Do you mind putting the gun away? My wife doesn’t care, but I’m pregnant and I don’t want the child to be born with—(he gets interrupted)
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:
(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?” 2
Do I think these risqué passages make Hammett’s final novel worth reading? Not exactly. (Though it makes for a hell of blog post title!) But I think the book as a whole is an excellent compliment to the film, we’ll say the R-rated version to the film’s PG-13. Nick and Nora in print-form are a little looser, a littler drunker, and a little dirtier.
So if you ever pick up a copy of the book—and I highly recommend any and all Hammett—you should first check out the conclusion to Chapter 25. If it makes you blush then you know you’re holding something Hammett-approved.
BACK TO POST 1 Hammett supposedly based Nick and Nora on himself and his lover, author Lillian Hellman. He dedicated the book to her and told her she was Nora. “It was nice to be Nora,” Hellman wrote in 1965, “married to Nick Charles, maybe one of the few marriages in modern literature where the man and woman like each other and have a fine time together. But I was soon put back in place—Hammett said I was also the silly girl in the book and the villainess.”
BACK TO POST 2 As I’ve only read the Knopf edition, this alteration was news to me. Once I met someone who’d recently read the book; I said, “How about that ‘erection’ line?’ which created much confusion in the ensuing conversation.