By ZJ Czupor
Every February, in “Mystery Fanfare,” Janet Rudolph posts a list of “Sweetheart Sleuths,” fictious detective couples who combine murder and mayhem. She updates her list every year for Valentine’s Day and claims there are roughly eighty authors who’ve written about “sweetheart sleuths.” These romantic detective couples either solve crimes together, and/or have a compelling or complicated relationship. You may recognize such luminary authors as: Margery Allingham (1904-1966); Agatha Christie (1890-1976); Janet Evanovich, Robert B. Parker (1932-2010), S.J. Rozan, and Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957).
One of the earliest writers to create a sweetheart detective duo was Samuel Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961). In his 1934 novel, The Thin Man, (Alfred A. Knopf), he introduced the wickedly sophisticated Nick and Nora Charles—a married couple of equals who solve murder mysteries with more cocktails than clues while exchanging sharp repartee. And through the couple’s eyes, Hammett lets readers peek in on New York’s sophisticated society during the Great Depression and right before Prohibition.
As “sweetheart sleuths,” Nick and Nora Charles’ relationship centers around drinking, flirting, fun, a deep intellectual affinity, and their schnauzer “Asta.” Hammett’s writing style embodied no-frills, spartan and bawdy language, funny and loving human beings.
As a departure from his famous hard-boiled detectives, the Continental Ops and Sam Spade, he painted Nick as an alcoholic former private detective who retired after he married the rich and clever Nora. Nick had worked for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency as did Hammett and was a renowned tippler and martini aficionado as was Hammett. By the way, Nick preferred his martini shaken decades before we learned about James Bond’s preference.
Nora’s character is reportedly modeled after Hammett’s longtime partner Lillian Hellman (1905-1984). They never married but lived together, off and on, for thirty years and encouraged each other’s literary careers. Nora is flirty, flippant, and boozy, like Hellman.
Hellman was a playwright and memoirist best known for such Broadway plays as “The Little Foxes” (1939) “The Children’s Hour” (1934), and more. Hammett dedicated The Thin Man to her.
The plot of The Thin Man careens off into a mystery when a former client of Nick’s, an inventor, disappears. The man’s daughter and Nora urge Nick to find her father. Nora especially encourages Nick for she loves a good mystery and adventure. Nick is reluctant as he would rather spend his time managing Nora’s fortune and drink. Finally, he agrees to get involved. Together, they follow clues to find the missing inventor and his killer. The novel is romantic, spiced with banter and witty dialogue, illusions to sex, copious amounts of alcohol, and makes a mockery of manners.
Before he wrote The Thin Man, Hammett had established his literary reputation having published The Red Harvest (1927), The Dain Curse 1929), and The Maltese Falcon (1930). In the summer of 1930, he moved to Hollywood to pen original screenplays for Paramount Studios. A year later, he contracted with Warner Brothers to write a detective movie for the actor William Powell, but the screenplay was rejected. While in Los Angeles, Hammett partied with a fast crowd, drank too much, and quickly ran out of money. Friends paid his hotel bill and put him on a plane to New York.
Hammett then began writing The Thin Man but after sixty-five pages abandon the novel. Meanwhile, Warner Brothers produced The Maltese Falcon starring Humphrey Bogart. Hammett then decided to revisit Hollywood. When he returned to New York, he checked into the Sutton Club Hotel to re-work The Thin Man and completed the novel in May 1933.
In Hellman’s memoir, An Unfinished Woman (Little Brown, 1969), she said Hammett changed while he was working on his novel. “He stopped drinking and playing. He worked until he was finished.” Hammett tried shopping the novel to magazines for serial publication. However, editors refused the story deeming it “amoral if not immoral.” He finally sold it to Redbook for $5,000 (Dec. 1933).
The following month, publisher Alfred A. Knopf bought the rights and published the story in book form. About 34,000 copies of the novel were sold at $2.00 each in the first year-and-a-half. It was not a best seller.
A month later, MGM purchased the film rights for $21,000, a veritable fortune during the Great Depression. In today’s value, that amount would be about $436,928.
The Thin Man was seminal in that it departed from the hard-boiled mystery novels of the time and distinguished itself with lightness, humor, homicide, and whispers of sex—a formula that fiction, film and television are still trying to duplicate. Critics, however, called the novel scandalous leading to censorship, but it became Hammett’s greatest commercial success.
While it was his fifth and final novel, it became one of his best known because of film, radio, and TV adaptations. There were six “Thin Man” movies, a long-running radio show, and a 1950s TV series. Hammett’s total earnings from the novel, its characters, and spinoffs between 1933 and 1950 approached a million dollars. (Shadow Man: The Life of Dashiell Hammett, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981).
New York critic Alexander Woolcott (1887-1943) called the novel “the best detective story yet written in America.” The Thin Man’s title page teased audiences with this claim:
“As hard-boiled and thrilling a murder-shocker as you’ve ever read—written by a man who was once a Pinkerton detective, and knows more about real murder than any other living writer.”
Raymond Chandler (1888-1959), a contemporary of Hammett’s in the hard-boiled tradition, said, “Hammett is said to have lacked heart, yet the story he thought most of himself is the record of a man’s devotion to a friend. He was spare, frugal, hard-boiled, but he did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before.” (“The Simple Art of Murder,” 1950).
Hammett’s novel brims with clever and snappy dialogue. For example, the day after Nick and Nora confront an intruder, he reads the newspaper account of the episode:
Nick: “I’m a hero. I was shot twice in the Tribune.”
Nora: “I read where you were shot five times in the tabloids.”
Nick: “Not true. He didn’t come anywhere near my tabloids.”
In another exchange, Nick offers Nora a drink:
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.”
Hammett’s granddaughter, Julie M. Rivett, called the dialogue “a rare blend of silly and cynical, sloshed and smart.” But she added the novel “is a little darker (than the film). My grandfather was a political activist and was always deeply conscious of social and economic issues. There are a couple of references to the Depression and there’s also this dark sexuality in it. It’s a little edgier than the movie. Hollywood scrubbed that out of it.”
Rivett said it was also one of the first times on film where a woman is a partner to her husband. “She’s the one with the money and the social background and she’s standing up to him, standing up for herself. When you put that in the 1930s, that’s pretty revolutionary.” Nora’s character was even more groundbreaking as before Prohibition, ladies didn’t frequent bars.
Also, during Prohibition, the best bartenders fled the United States which led to more couples drinking at home. That started a trend and sales boom for cocktail shakers and bar tools. Mixing their own libations is a common refrain in The Thin Man stories as Nick and Nora frequently hit the sauce throughout the novel and in subsequent films.
Howard A. Rodman, author of The Great Eastern (Melville House, 2019), and professor at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, said in reading The Thin Man “I think you come for the ostensible mystery but what you leave with is really the story of a marriage. I think Nick and Nora as a model for what a wondrously complex marriage might be like with cocktails, endures far longer.”
In the same year the novel was published, the film version was produced starring William Powell and Myrna Loy. It quickly became a box-office favorite. Although it was a summer release, the movie is set during Christmas in New York. The movie was nominated for four Academy Awards including Best Picture. After the film came out, people assumed (incorrectly) that Nick Charles was the Thin Man. William Powell’s dapper and thin image, as well as Hammett’s thin frame, which appeared on the novel’s cover, fueled that image. In fact, the “Thin Man” is the murder victim in the novel.
After Hammett wrote treatments for the second and third Thin Man films, MGM bought all rights to the characters Nick and Nora Charles. Studio executives wanted to develop the series without Hammett, so they paid him $40,000, which in today’s dollars would amount to about $832,244. For “sweetheart sleuths” that’s a sweetheart deal.
Hammett said, “Maybe there are better writers in the world, but nobody ever invented a more insufferably smug pair of characters. They can’t take that away from me, even for $40,000.”
Hammett didn’t create any new fiction or publish in the twenty-six years between The Thin Man and his death in 1961. He stayed busy drinking, editing Lillian Hellman’s plays, joined the American Communist Party, and taught a mystery writing class at the Jefferson School of Social Science in New York.
In 1942, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the U.S. Army for the second time. He was a disabled veteran of World War I and a victim of tuberculosis, nevertheless, the Army allowed him to join the war effort. He served in New Jersey and the Aleutian Islands off Alaska where he edited the Army’s newspaper.
On July 9, 1951, at the age of fifty-seven, Hammett appeared in Manhattan’s District Court on suspicion of communist activities. In his time as president of the Civil Rights Congress, he helped create a bail fund to pay for the release of people convicted for political reasons. He was a trustee of those funds and because he refused to answer any of the court’s questions, he was held in contempt and arrested. He served six months in prison. His prison time aggravated his tuberculous. After Hammett’s release, he got more unwelcome news. The IRS claimed $111,008.60 of his income as payment for failing to pay back taxes.
In 1953, he testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee about his alleged affiliation with the Communist Party. Again, he refused to offer information. This time he avoided conviction but was blacklisted from employment in Hollywood. Hellman was also blacklisted.
After a lifetime of boozing and cigarettes, his tuberculosis worsened, and he could no longer live alone due to problems with breathing. While staying at Lillian Hellman’s house on Martha’s Vineyard he had a heart attack. When he had lost his stamina, Hellman took him to her Manhattan brownstone and installed a bed on the library floor where she could care for him.
In the final months of 1960, Hammett learned he had lung cancer. He died two months later on January 10, 1961, in a Manhattan hospital. He was sixty-seven. Because he was a veteran of two World Wars, he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
Writing in her memoir, Hellman said, “… I miss Hammett, and that is as it should be. He was the most interesting man I’d ever met. I laugh at what he did say, amuse myself with what he might say, and even this many years later speak to him, often angry that he still interferes with me, still dictates the rules.”
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In his early twenties, Hammett worked as a detective for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, which is the source for the term “private eye.” Pinkerton’s logo was of an open eye and the claim “We never sleep.”
Literary critics have anointed Hammett as the founder of the “hard-boiled” detective novel. While Carroll John Daly (1889-1958) pioneered the style in the mid-1920s, Hammett popularized hard-boiled fiction with his earthy, graphic, and vivid writing. Hammett’s realism, fast-paced action, and slangy dialogue ushered in a new era of detective novels as they differed from the amateur sleuths and lighter mysteries of the Victorian era. His novels featured violent criminals in urban settings told through the eyes of a private investigator. His most famous detective was Sam Spade, the private detective from The Maltese Falcon. The book was so popular, the publisher reprinted his novel seven times in its first year.
Daly’s first hard-boiled story “The False Burton Combs,” featuring private detective Race Williams, appeared in Black Mask magazine in December 1922.
Upon Hammett’s death, Hellman secured his copyrights for $5,000 and paid his debts to the IRS. But she also denied Hammett’s wife and daughter their share in his royalties. His daughter, Josephine, finally managed to secure the copyrights of his novels during the 1990s.
I really enjoy reading all about the background and set up for the creation of THE THIN MAN….one of our very favorite film series. In fact, whenever TCM runs those movies again, I record them so we can watch them again – what a great couple the author created in Nick and Nora! Bravo. Thanks for a most informative blog.
My husband LOVES old movies, and I love anything from the Golden Age of Detection. We’ve watched The Thin Man at least four times and one or two of the sequels. Definitely still as witty today as then.