(Idea behind Graveyard of Ideas is here)
The other day something reminded me of an idea which spontaneously
rose to mind many years ago, and has never really gone away. It’s a generational sequel to The Thin Man, both the novel by Dashiell Hammett and the subsequent film franchise starring William Powell and Myrna Loy. I would never actually write this because: it would be a great deal of work towards an uncertain goal (Who would ever publish this? How many people read Thin Man fanfic?) and a heavy load of research (I don’t particularly want to know how to write an accurate Joey Bishop voice). But I did think it was a neat idea, so here is the gravestone to:
SON OF THE THIN MAN
Summer 1964. The Sixties are still a Playboy Age, not a Hippie Age, and tonight there is a black-tie party at the fabulous Playboy Mansion in swingin’ Chicago. A deluxe Cadillac pulls into the driveway and disgorges Nicholas Charalambides, heir & head of the Charles industrial conglomerate, and his elderly mother, Nora Charles, widow of the late Nick Sr (who died from cirrhosis of the liver in 1959).
Hef greets them in his bathrobe, pipe & Pepsi in his hands, and points them to the dining room. There they find themselves at a table with other nationally known figures: Young financier Robert Vesco, promising young auto exec John De Lorean, champion boxer Cassius Clay, Governor Nelson Rockefeller, Kennedy brother-in-law Peter Lawford, and up-and-coming young comedian & actor Bill Cosby.
Nick is not intimidated by the company. He is a hip, hip swinger. He reads Evergreen Review, he’s seen 8 ½, he knows Miles personally. His voice in the conversation is an authority, his wit a scalpel–
“Oh, Nicky, you say the funniest things,” says Nora.
“Nicholas, Mother. We agreed you would call me Nicholas,” he says out of the corner of his mouth.
“Nicky’s father used to say all sorts of clever things. But he’s gone now, gone, gone forever.”
There’s an awkward moment in the face of the widow’s grief. Cosby breaks it:
“So, Mr Charalambides, are you keeping up with the detectivising and the private-eyzivising, like your old man used to do?”
“No! My father was dogged to the end of his life by people who expected him to still be a detective, and I’ll be damned if I get roped into it. I’ve never solved a crime in my life, and I want to keep it that way.”
A silver-skinned, auburn-haired bunny brings the entrees. Nick notes the ease with which she carries dinner for eight, despite her slender and toned frame.
“What’s your name, baby?” Lawford asks.
“Trixie, Mr Lawford.”
Lawford slips a hand into the back end of her Bunny uniform and squeezes her butt. “Soft as a cushion,” he says.
She glances significantly at his crotch and says “Looks like we have something in common.”
Nick stifles a guffaw. Lawford yanks his hand back and gulps his whiskey. Trixie completes her delivery of the coq au vin and goes back for more drinks.
“I should complain to Hef about her,” Cosby says. “I don’t like it when the girls get smart mouths like that. They should be easygoing and adaptable, like my wife, Camille.”
“It was excellent service, Bill,” says Nora. “Peter wanted to feel an ass, and she obliged.”
It seems to Nick that his mother’s statement could be taken several ways, but he doesn’t say anything.
Nora dominates the conversation as they eat. “I miss Asta, too. You never saw a more loyal dog, and so protective! Why, once he thought Nicky was threatening me with his prize air rifle, and he went and chewed the thing to bits!”
“I hated that dog,” Nick snarls under his breath.
“But we never quite got him housebroken, and the cost of replacing those rugs–”
A scream erupts nearby. Nick is on his feet in an instant, running towards the trouble. By Hef’s table, a body sprawls. Hef, frantic, calls for one of the many doctors in the house, who confirms the worst: Rat Pack funnyman Joey Bishop has rattled off his last one-liner.
Nick grabs Bishop’s drained martini glass and sniffs. Behind the pungent smell of gin, he can detect hints of bitter almonds, the odor his dad taught him meant…
“Cyanide,” Nick says. “Somebody dosed the drink.”
Hef seizes the situation. “Folks, I’m going to have to ask everyone not to leave until we get this sorted out.” He pulls Nick aside. “Nick, I need your help. I can’t call the police yet.”
“Many of the guests have…uh…” Hef mimes someone taking a long drag off a thin cigarette.
Ah, the dread weed marihuana. “Well, what do you want me to do about it?”
“You’ve got some experience with this kind of thing. Can’t you figure out who did it? If we can present the police with a murderer, they won’t have to search everybody.”
“That was my father, not me. I’ve never–”
Nick surveys the room. Were the cops let loose on the star power present, no gossip columnist in the country would have to do real work for the next year. Friends of his, many of them.
“All right. Let me ask around.”
“Thank you, Nick! Is there anything you need?”
“As a matter of fact, yes.” Nick turns around to find Trixie, the Bunny waitress, standing behind him.
“Hey, Trixie. Can you do me a favor?”
She leans forward, pressing her the front of her bunny costume firmly against his shoulder. “What did you have in mind, Mr Charlambides?”
“I have to ask some people a few questions. Can you watch my mother? Keep her out of my hair?”
Trixie straightens back up and readjusts her bunny costume. “The dame with the pearls? Sure, it’ll be a hoot.”
Nick starts asking people quite a few questions, except Trixie can’t keep Nora away at all, and pretty soon she isn’t even trying, so both of them are tagging along while he tries to figure out what the hell happened. Which turns out to be a real plus, because Trixie knows an awful lot about the Mansion’s regulars. They treat the Bunnys like furniture, she says, and don’t seem to notice a few in the room—so they don’t censor themselves when they talk.
Nick & Trixie find themselves in some dark corners of the place, following some unsavory people. On one occasion, they’re about to be caught—until Trixie grabs Nick and crams his mouth against hers. Seeing what seems like just a couple in a normal Playboy-style tete-a-tete, the person they’re following moves on. They break the embrace, stare at each other for a moment.
“Nicky! Nelson Rockefeller told me the most amazing—am I interrupting something?”
“Um, no, Mother. What did you find?”
After sifting through rumor, accusation, and hearsay, the murder seems to be the work of Governor Rockefeller, Hef himself, or Frank Sinatra. None of the possibilities quite fit. Some turn out to be red herrings. Finally Nick gets a lead that something might be down in the Grotto (thus requiring a macabre, dangerous trip into a dark area, a standard of these movies). He tells the women to stay behind, but they refuse.
Down into the grotto Nick descends, a flashlight in one hand, a bottle of Chateau Lafite Rothschild held by the neck in the other. Nora & Trixie are right behind him. Eerie shadows play around the vault.
A figure rises up from the dark, coming at them, brandishing above his head…
It’s Shel Silverstein.
“What are you doing here?” Nick demands.
“I was scared,” Shel whimpers. “I came here down here to write a little song about being scared, for kids to sing.”
Under close interrogation, Shel remembers a crucial fact, something no one else noticed at dinner. Nick tells Hef to gather all the guests and staff together in the dining room.
In front of the crowd, Nick pieces together the crime, step-by-step, eliminating the other suspects until the only possible murderer is: BILL COSBY! Yes! In the Thin Man movies, it’s always the most innocent, harmless-seeming character who turns out be THE EVILEST GUY IN THE ROOM. (As exemplified in Jimmy Stewart’s memorable freakout in “After the Thin Man”)
Cosby whips out a hidden pistol. “Yeah, he had to die! He knew too much! About me, and the ladies and the girlies and the oh-so-sweeties! He was gonna talk, and ruin my career, and my marriage to my wife, Camille!”
A horrified silence reigns as Cosby whips the pistol back and forth in a rage.
Nora says “Oh, Nicky! You solved the mystery. Your father would be so proud!” She begins to weep copiously. “But he’s not here! He’s GONE! GONE FOREVER! HE’LL NEVER BE BACK! NEVER! NEVER! NEVER!”
“Shut up! Somebody shut her up!” shouts Cosby.
Nora swoons into the crowd. In all the mishegos, Cosby never sees Trixie emerging from a bank of potted palms behind him.
BAM! A empty magnum of Chateau Lafite Rothschild shatters over Cosby’s head. He slumps to the floor.
“Neat work, Trixie,” says Nora, recovering from her fake swoon.
“Thanks, Mrs Charles,” says Trixie.
Cosby is hauled away shouting that he did nothing wrong. Hef thanks Nick for his help. Nora kisses her son’s cheek and whispers that his father really would be proud, then leaves with Governor Rockefeller.
Nick and Trixie end up on a veranda, watching the sun come up over Lake Michigan in the distance.
“Can I ask a question?” she says.
“What was with that big production in the dining room? Why didn’t you just get Hef’s security to tackle Cosby when he was alone?”
Nick smiles. “That was my father’s advice. ‘Junior, always leave ’em with a big finish,’ he used to say.” He leans over the rail toward the rising sun. “My dad taught me that. He taught me to always look very closely at things. He taught me to keep my eye on the mousey guy.”
Suddenly it’s like he’s not there anymore, like he’s seeing something beyond the horizon.
“He taught me how to die. We were at the hospital. He was asleep. It was only Mother and I in the room. All of a sudden, he sat bolt upright and looked at her and said ‘Goodbye, sugar.’ Then he was gone.”
He shakes his head a bit, comes back to the place and time.
“That wasn’t very hip, was it?”
“No,” Trixie says, a note of amused sympathy in her voice.
He thinks for a moment, finally says:
“Say, why don’t we go get hitched? The JP in the next county owes me a favor. We could wake him up.”
“That isn’t every hip either. There’s easier ways to get a girl into bed around here than that, you know.”
“I’m serious. I think we could have some laughs.”
She searches his face, trying to see if it’s a joke. Then:
He fetches the big red Cadillac, opens the passenger door for her.
“In you go, sugar.”
“Why, thank you, Nicky.”
Her laugh follows the car down the long driveway, into the new Chicago day.