In the middle of the Thirties there was an outbreak of fox terriers all over England and America – and still, over eighty years later, people of a certain age, after pulling the ears of one of our dogs, tend to say, ‘Oh, but he’s exactly like – what was the name? – ah, yes – Asta.’
Asta was the only begetter of the terrier pandemic provoked by a 1934 film in which he (his name was actually Skippy) appeared with William Powell and Myrna Loy. The Thin Man was based on a novel by Dashiell Hammett – in which Asta is actually a female Schnauzer belonging to retired detective Nick Charles and his wife Nora. Powell and Loy were perfectly cast, and if Skippy was never remotely Schnauzerish, he started such a rage for fox terriers that they were wildly over- and in-bred, and eventually got so snappy and went so far out of fashion that the breed never really recovered until Crackwyn Cockspur became supreme champion of Crufts in 1962. We called his daughter Crackles; but I suppose I’m getting away from my subject.
The Thin Man was Hammett’s last book, and rather different from his others – it’s both thriller and sly sexual farce, the dialogue full of the slick one-liners which instantly became the markers for smart Hollywood dialogue right up to and including All about Eve. It’s a fine book – but it doesn’t compare with The Maltese Falcon. This is a detective story, but not about a particular murder – though it starts with one, the result of a treasure hunt. The eponymous falcon is an immeasurably precious relic originally given by the Knights of Malta to the King of Spain. Covered in black paint, it has knocked about for a century and more, unrecognized for what it is. But now Casper Gutman, the ‘fat man’, is on its trail, and Hammett’s detective, Sam Spade, is drawn into a violent tussle between thieves determined to get their hands on it.
The book bears no resemblance to any European e
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