Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Sadness of Seeing a Great Mind In Decline

Dashiell Hammett, Return of the Thin Man

Dashiell Hammett is famous for rebuilding the mystery genre away from mere intellectual puzzles, into complex realms of psychological realism. But he only published five novels. So when a publisher claims to have discovered two previously unknown novellas in his personal papers, you can imagine the excitement among mystery fans worldwide. And I can imagine the disappointment they’ll feel when they actually read these stories.

Hammett’s fifth and final novel, The Thin Man, differs from his prior works in its sense of humor. The culture clash between hard-bitten, alcoholic Nick Charles, and his glamorous wife Nora’s old-money world, enlivened by the kind of quick banter Hammett perfected, remains funny decades later. That’s saying something, since humor doesn’t age well. Not for nothing is the movie adaptation, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, considered classic.

But by the time The Thin Man hit shelves, Hammett had already grown bored of his own fame. Publishers, fans, movie studios, and paparazzi all thought they owned a piece of him. He felt estranged from the world he wrote about, and cared more about leftist politics than about his six-book contract, which remained incomplete at his death, nearly twenty years later. A known drunk with a razor tongue, Hammett was turning into Nick Charles.

These two novellas, written under contract for MGM, provide a glimpse into a mind on the verge of collapse. But calling them novellas does them, and Hammett, an injustice. These are screen treatments that the studio would turn into the movies After the Thin Man and Another Thin Man. And they look like exactly what they are, screen treatments. Hammett dedicates all his energy to action and dialog, and none to the atmospherics that make his novels so powerful.

In some ways, that isn’t much of a loss. So we don’t get a lot of insights into the characters’ psyches. So what? Hammett’s characters are notoriously immune to introspection. Can you imagine Sam Spade ruminating over the morality of his actions? Of course not. That was part of the point with his characters: they exist entirely as they are, driven by ad hoc honor codes, not chained to the exigencies of the past.

But by replacing Hammett’s unique narrative growl with a blunt, declarative voice, these stories drop us into a world free from nuance. Characters are introduced not by the subtle application of action and language, but by full name and a character note. Actions simply happen, spoken into existence. Hammett’s novels are beautiful in their ambiguity; Nick Charles could as easily be a villain as a hero. But in these stories, he expects the director to fill that in.

Moreover, Hammett appears tired of his own creation. Editors Richard Layman and Julie Rivett give examples from Hammett’s life and papers to back up that impression, but we would know that even if we didn’t have their thorough notes. We’d know it from the way scenes get shorter and less detailed, as though Hammett were physically weary of writing. We’d know it from the way he reaches for easy, obvious jokes.

And we’d know it from the way a third story at the back of the book, simply entitled “Sequel to The Thin Man,” runs only eight pages and stops mid-sentence.

In all, this is clearly the work of a man who knows that his own best work is probably behind him. Instead of creating anything new, he’s tied to Hollywood, trying to extract more life out of his last great accomplishment. And as Layman and Rivett note, he isn’t even doing his own work. His stories incorporate bits lifted whole from screenwriters Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, and the studio (and Hayes Office) excised many of Hammett’s best contributions.

Many writers have to do Hollywood work to pay the bills. Such diverse authors as William Faulkner, Ayn Rand, and Dalton Trumbo did the studio shuck for rent and groceries before their novels took on a life of their own. But Hammett, like F. Scott Fitzgerald, did his Hollywood work after his peak had passed. His resentment comes across in every line. And the weariness he carries, trying to finish stories he clearly doesn’t love, infect us, too.

These stories make interesting historical artifacts. I can’t say I’m sorry I read them, because they give new glimpses into a great author’s creative process. But unlike Hammett’s novels, these don’t invite repeated reading or close attention. Read them for what they are, nothing more, because they aren’t Hammett’s great lost works.

No comments:

Post a Comment