Sweetheart Sleuths: A Valentine’s Mystery Minute
By ZJ Czupor
Feb. 14, 2019
The “mistress of mystery” Janet Rudolph blogging in “Mystery Fanfare” (Feb. 11, 2019), claims there are roughly eighty authors who’ve written about “sweetheart sleuths,” couples who either solve crimes together, or have a compelling or complicated relationship. You may recognize some of these luminary authors: Margery Allingham, Agatha Christie, Janet Evanovich, Robert Parker, S.J. Rozan, and Dorothy Sayers.
One of the earliest writers to create “sweetheart sleuths” was Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961) in his 1934 novel, The Thin Man, (Alfred A. Knopf), about the wickedly sophisticated Nick and Nora Charles—a married couple of equals who solve murder mysteries with as many cocktails as clues while exchanging sharp repartee.
The story originally appeared in the December 1933 issue of Redbook and was published in book form the following month. Hammett started the novel in 1932 when he was nearly broke. While it was his fifth and final novel, it was not considered his best, but 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, as you may recall, also created one of the most famous detectives of all time, Sam Spade, in his best novel, The Maltese Falcon.
As “sweetheart sleuths,” Nick and Nora Charles’ relationship centered around drinking, flirting, fun and a deep intellectual affinity. Nothing could get in the way of their bond—not life, not children, or society. The writing style embodies no-frills, spartan and bawdy language, hard-drinking, funny and loving human beings.
Nick is an alcoholic former private detective who retired after he married the rich and beautiful Nora. Hammett reportedly modeled Nora’s character—along with boozy, flippant dialogue– on his relationship with his longtime partner Lillian Hellman (1905-1984), to whom he dedicated the novel. Hellman was a playwright and memoirist best known for such Broadway plays as The Little Foxes, The Children’s Hour and more.
The novel brims with clever dialogue. For example, after Nick is wounded, he opens the newspaper and says, “I’m a hero. I was shot twice in the Tribune.”
Nora says: “I read where you were shot five times in the tabloids.”
To which Nick responds: “Not true. He didn’t come anywhere near my tabloids.”
Hammett’s granddaughter, Julie M. Rivett,* called the dialogue “a rare blend of silly and cynical, sloshed and smart.”
The novel also mentions that Nick was once a Pinkerton detective, as was Hammett. By the way, Nick preferred his martini shaken—decades before we learned about James Bond’s preference.
Hammett’s The Thin Man was seminal in that it departed from the hardboiled 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.
The same year the novel was published, The Thin Man film was made starring William Powell and Myrna Loy. Although it was a summer release, the movie is set during Christmas with murder and mayhem. 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. 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 so the studio could develop the series without Hammett. He was paid $40,000, which in today’s dollars would amount to about $750,000. For “sweetheart sleuths” that’s a sweetheart deal.
Hammett later 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.”
And that’s your Valentine Mystery Minute.
*Rivett with Richard Layman, co-edited, The Return of The Thin Man (Grove/Atlantic/Mysterious, 2012).