The Big Idea: Mary Robinette Kowal

“The book was better than the movie!” What about when the book was inspired by a movie? Hugo Award Winning author Mary Robinette Kowal talks to us today about what inspired her to write her newest novel, The Spare Man.


The Thin Man in Space — That’s what The Spare Man is. Not the novel by Dashiel Hammet, mind you, but the films that follow Nick and Nora Charles as played by William Powell and Myrna Loy. I adore these films. If you haven’t seen them, they’re about a happily married couple who solve crime with their adorable dog Asta. They were made in the 1930s are are often lumped into the noir category but are really murder comedies.

I wanted to write a murder mystery that was a playful as the films, also starring a happily married couple and their small dog. In space. I am a science fiction writer after all.

This is one of those novels where the pitch came first and then the characters and then I had to find the story itself. To do that, I watched all six of The Thin Man movies and started paying attention to the way things were constructed. The films are… uneven, shall we say. The relationship between Nick and Nora (and Asta) is always charming because of the actors, but some of the mysteries are so convoluted that they don’t make any sense.

In the good ones, every suspect has a connection to the deceased and a motive. There are clues that are easily misinterpreted until another clue puts them into a different light. And there are oddball characters that seem to exist only to give a sense of whimsy.

And, of course, a murder.

With those elements, I turned to one of my other favorite tools — inversion. I really enjoy taking a piece of a story and turning it to its opposite. In the films, Nick is the detective and Nora is the spouse who wants to participate in sleuthing but isn’t allowed.

Sure, I could have gender swapped the characters, but that still means the detective is doing the detecting. I’m more interested in stories in which a competent person is put in a situation where their competencies are irrelevant. That meant that my Nora — Tesla Crane — is still an heiress. Her Nick — Shalmaneser Steward — is still a detective. My Asta — Gimlet — is still a dog.

But let’s invert some things. Shal is placed in a position where he can’t investigate, even though he’s a detective, because he’s arrested as a suspect. Tesla has to investigate, but I strip her of her power — money — by having her travel incognito. That in itself is an inversion, because Nick and Nora are both famous within the world of the films.

And in my novel, Gimlet (the most perfect of dogs) is a service dog so she has self-awareness and discipline that her inspiration lacks.

When you watch the film and then read the book, you’ll spot one other inversion which is related to the murder itself. That is a giant spoiler, but I’ll just say that I’m really proud of that murder.

The other major driving force in The Thin Man movies comes via the conversations that Nick and Nora have in their pursuit of answers. When I plotted the novel initially, I figured out who the characters were and how Tesla and Shal could meet them and then I discovery-wrote the first half of the book. Usually I plot things out, but I hadn’t fully decided who the murderer was until I was about at the midway point following the Agatha Christie method of writing mysteries. What’s the Agatha Christie method? She didn’t plot her novels. I know, right?! She gave everyone motive and opportunity and then decided at the end which one was the murderer.

I didn’t go quite that far but I did wait until I had fleshed out the characters before deciding, because I realized that a lot of the fun of The Thin Man comes from the conversations, the banter, and the characters that they meet.

So for Shal and Tesla, I started with the characters, not the plot. Granted, I had to do a fair bit of cleanup after that. But each time I had to adjust an element, I thought about Nick and Nora Charles and tried to bring them into the 21st century. In space.

As I said, the Big Idea for this is pretty simple. The Thin Man in spaaaaaaaaaaaace!!!!

The Spare Man: Universal Book Link|Parnassus (MRK’s local store)

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s website. Follow her on Twitter and Tiktok. Access writing dates, classes, and more on Patreon. Find her on The Spare Man tour.

25 Comments on “The Big Idea: Mary Robinette Kowal”

  1. Sometimes Christie’s plot depended upon who was the murderer. She had several novels that were about the twist more than anything else.

  2. I just bought it yesterday and started it this morning. So looking forward to seeing what she does with some of these elements which are also favorites of mine. One of my children was named for Nora Charles.

  3. I have been looking forward to this for months!

    My pre-ordered signed copy arrived from Parnassus Books on Saturday, and I am in AGONY because the weekend’s chores made it impossible for me to dive in and enjoy it. And I dare not start it on a weeknight lest I wind up staying up way, way past my bedtime, which would have a seriously deleterious effect on my work the next day.

    But this coming weekend is reserved for MRK and The Spare Man – and woe betide the unsuspecting fool who tries to get me to do anything else but revel in it!

    Thank you, Mary Robinette!

  4. I’m 40% of the way through it, and it’s delightful. Clever dialogue FTW.

    Also, it makes me want want want to rewatch the Thin Man movies.

    Also also, Gimlet is the most adorable fictional character I’ve ever desperately wanted to meet.

  5. “ I’m really proud of that murder.”
    Was it Ms Kowal who asked on the Twitter a while back how long someone would survive if their skin was completely removed?

  6. My wife read it first and really liked it and I am just starting. We both picked up the 1930’s screwball comedy vibe.

  7. I’ve been carrying a torch for Myrna Loy for a very long time, so that visual was taken care of immediately. The films were uneven (it would be interesting to match the screenwriters to the better stories) but there was always the elegant and brilliant Nora Charles. Oh, and Nick too, I suppose.

    The Spare Man was just what I wanted: fun and a puzzler and with MRK’s scientific detail focused on cocktails. And such a great dog.

  8. My favorite line from the first “Thin Man” movie was “Please serve the nuts,” which Myrna Loy managed to make sound both innocuous and insulting at the same time.

  9. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Luckily for them, Tesla and Shal don’t get through quite as much alcohol as Nick and Nora! And some of the cocktail recipes in the chapter headings are zero-proof, which is a nice touch. P.S. the Twitter question came from a different author; I was the reply that suggested “degloving” as a search term. Please do not search on that term unless you are prepared for truly horrifying medical details.

  10. p.p.s. I have recommended this book to my agility teacher, who is an SF/F fan and has a dog named Asta.

  11. Hillary Rettig: That’s all needed, too! Actually, I didn’t need that much–the Amazon summary doesn’t mention The Thin Man, but I caught the vibe and preordered immediately!

  12. I loved The Thin Man, but I first saw the ’50s TV series with Peter Lawford. And I wanted a wire-haired terrier so badly!

    Off to buy the book now!

  13. ROFLing after double-take ==> “I’ll just say that I’m really proud of that murder”

  14. I really, really liked that book. I never saw the movies. Now that I know about the connection, I am on a quest to find them ;)
    Which is made harder by me living in Germany and wanting to get them legally and in english with english subtitles SDH/CC.
    Why oh why did Amazon and Apple both stop getting the movies rights with the original language audio AND subtitles? sigh
    Looks I will have to buy the DVD versions and rip them myself.

  15. @ Mary Robinette Kowal.
    IIRC It was sometime early this year or maybe last year. Scalzi retweeted it. Come to think of it, it may have been Dr. Mack who asked.

  16. I am so here for this story. Love noir, love those movies, love a bit of inversion.

    Also, this is why I’m jaded with Agatha Christie stories. I always thought her mode of writing showed through, and I was never invested in who the killer was, because I knew the tec’ would pull the answer out of…the air at the end. Mostly I turn up for the period setting and the production values.

    This story on the other hand, sounds fabulous!

  17. I finished this a few days ago and loved it, though I found myself confused by the pages leading up to the denouement. I’ll have to go back and read them again to see if I can get it.

    The characters were all very well developed, the humor was sly (I have seen some of the Powell/Loy movies), and I enjoyed the afterwords about the science.

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