Monthly Archives: September 2013

How Sam Spade Came to Be Hard-Boiled, Part 1

Cover of Black Mask magazine featuring the Maltese Falcon

Hi, K.B. Owen here, to talk about the “hard-boiled” detective story subgenre and one of my favorite examples of that style, The Maltese Falcon. (Yes, I’m fully embracing the irony of a cozy mystery writer discussing such a rough-and tumble fictional world. If you really want your mind blown, check out my hard-boiled short-short fiction piece a few months ago on Laird Sapir’s blog). 

This will be in two parts: today, I’ll talk about the genre in general and some background on Sam Spade’s world; next Tuesday, I’ll talk about how Dashiell Hammett’s background (hint: he wrote what he knew) came to be linked so closely with his creation, and the reaction to the novel’s publication.  I hope you can join me for both parts!

What is hard-boiled?
What we call “hard-boiled” (a term first coined by Raymond Chandler) is crime fiction that’s characterized by a hard-drinking, cynical private eye with his own moral code, a sexy dame with lies even longer than her legs, and an emphasis on action over contemplative deduction. Although the detective-hero is street-smart and savvy in the ways of the criminal underworld, he solves the case more with his fists than by sitting in a corner, smoking shag tobacco and thinking over the puzzle.

Some folks consider hard-boiled and noir interchangeable terms, but critic Otto Penzler gives a great explanation of why this isn’t the case: Noir Fiction is About Losers, Not Private Eyes.

Only in America
The hard-boiled subgenre is a uniquely American creation, arising from the frontier heroes, larger-than-life loners, scoundrels and criminals of U.S. history.

American literary tastes of the early 20th century had been conditioned by the Leatherstocking Tales of James Fenimore Cooper. The hero, Natty Bumppo (I kid you not), had moral virtue and fantastic visual powers by which he could read broken twigs and faint footprints to seek out the enemy.  Rather than society’s rules, he followed his own code of ethics.

American readers were interested in frontier adventure tales, stories with a romantic interest, and those with a residual sense of the “eye for an eye” justice of their Puritan forefathers. They avidly read stories serialized in magazines – in 1922 alone there were over 20,000 magazines published – and the magazine detective story format was emerging as a very popular medium. The enormous following of the late 19th century dime/pulps (even though the stories were rather primitive) also encouraged publishers of the early 20th century to promote this sort of fiction.

A Classic Example: The Maltese Falcon (1930), by Dashiell Hammett

poster fior the 1941 film of The Maltese Falcon
Of course, many of us are familiar with the 1941 film, starring Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade. But there’s much more to the story than what we see in the film version.

Since the novel is set in 1920’s San Francisco, let me give you a little background about that time and place:

San Francisco was the metropolis of the West – a focal point of immigration, mining, industry, and export.

After the passage of the Volstead Act (otherwise known as Prohibition), the city became a major port of entry for illegal liquor. Speakeasies paid off local authorities in free liquor; networks of rum-runners stretched inland; and houses of prostitution flourished. Apparently many San Franciscans considered Prohibition an incentive to commerce.

The Bay area during this time attracted German, Italian and Chinese immigrants. In fact, an entire Chinese society, complete with criminal gangs, holy men and a social hierarchy, developed in a twenty-square-block area of downtown SF.

In terms of law enforcement, corruption abounded. Many of the cops, D.A.s, and city officials were either on the take or looking to advance themselves by whatever means necessary. This mindset is a prominent part of the world of The Maltese Falcon. Private eye Sam Spade doesn’t dare trust anyone but himself in such a world.

Next week, we’ll talk about Hammett the author, and how The Maltese Falcon was received at the time.

Are you a fan of hard-boiled detective fiction?  Have you seen the Bogart film?  I’d love to hear from you!

Until next time,

Posted by Kathy Owen (aka K.B. Owen). Kathy is a recovering former English professor with a PhD in 19th century British literature, and the author of Dangerous and Unseemly, A Concordia Wells Mystery. She is currently raising three boys and working on Books 2 and 3 in the Concordia Wells mystery series.

We blog here at misterio press once (sometimes twice) a week,  usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

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Three Mystery Book Reviews

Kass’s review of The Ruth Valley Missing by Amber West


This is a wonderful debut novel. The characters are well-developed and engaging and the story is well-paced. Amber West starts with a common premise–a young woman frustrated with both the big city and her self-centered boyfriend seeks a more peaceful life in a small town–but where the author takes the story is anything but commonplace.

Ruth Valley seems to be just the place for Jameson Quinn to start a new life, and she finds a delightful house to rent, with the hunky town sheriff as her landlord.

But there’s something off about this town, and after an injured young man mysteriously disappears, Jameson is determined to find out what is going on. As she digs beneath the surface, she discovers that nothing, and no one, is quite what they seem in Ruth Valley.

The twist at the end of this novel will blow your mind. I give The Ruth Valley Missing 4 out of 5 fingerprints.



Catie’s Review of The Restorer (The Graveyard Queen) by Amanda Stevens

the restorer

I loved this book. Part murder mystery and part ghost story, it was full of my favorite things.

The heroine, Amelia, is a cemetery restorer who can see ghosts. She lives by a strict set of rules set by her father who also saw the spirit world. She ends up breaking some of these rules when she gets pulled into the murder investigation of a fresh corpse found in the cemetery she is restoring.

This book has it all — a sexy, tortured cop with a mysterious past, ghosts who want Amelia’s attention, secret societies, and, well, secrets.

The Restorer is the first in the Graveyard Queen series. The author did a good job of setting up ongoing storylines about Amelia’s heritage, her parents, and her love interest (the sexy tortured cop). According to the author’s website, the series is being developed for television.

I give The Restorer 5 out of 5 fingerprints



JoAnn’s Review of How Far Is Heaven? (Louise Golden Mysteries) by Laurie Hanan


This sometimes dark but more often light story of  mail-carrier Louise Golden’s crazy Christmas is a keeper. The characters are  believable and well-fleshed-out and the story has twists and turns that feel  more fact than fiction. I loved the pivotal scene where Louise is in mortal  danger. It reads so true-to-reality that it’s impossible to put the book down  until you see how things unfold.

Hawaii, like everywhere else, has its share of  bad guys and heartbreak and this book cleverly poses these facts of life against  a backdrop of aloha culture and spectacular natural beauty. If you’re looking  for a quick-paced story with great characters, thrills, and a satifying ending  then this book is for you. And, the Hawaiian setting is a definite bonus.

I give How Far is Heaven? 5 out of 5 fingerprints


So, there you have it! Three new great mysteries. Happy Reading!

(We will be doing book reviews every few months. If you have a mystery/thriller you’d like to recommend to us for a review, you can e-mail Kassandra Lamb at )

We blog here at misterio press once (sometimes twice) a week,  usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

Please follow us so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun! (We do not harvest, lend, sell or otherwise bend, spindle or mutilate followers’ e-mail addresses.)


The Mystery of the Grilled Brie and Chocolate Sandwich

In the Riga Hayworth series of paranormal mystery novels, there’s lots of magic, lots of wine, and a definite appreciation for food.

But metaphysical detective Riga Hayworth is too busy solving paranormal crimes and being romanced by sexy casino owner, Donovan Mosse, to slice and dice a gourmet meal. So she’s a whiz with the fast and delicious. Grilled cheese is one of her comfort foods.  Here’s one of her most sinful sandwich recipes:

Riga’s Grilled Brie and Chocolate Sandwich

grilled brie and chocolate sandwich

2 pieces of sliced sourdough bread
Olive oil
Spreadable brie
Spreadable mascarpone cheese
Dark chocolate chips
Jam (any flavor, preferably a tart berry)

Heat non-stick skillet at medium-high. Spread brie on one side of one slice of bread. Spread mascarpone on the other slice. Spread with the jam, and drizzle a small handful of chocolate chips on one side. Put the two pieces together in a sandwich and drizzle the outside of the bread with olive oil. Grill until bread is toasted lightly brown and chocolate is gooey.

Riga recommends serving with a full-bodied cabernet or zinfandel. But then again, she’ll serve just about anything with a full-bodied cab or zin.

glass of wine next to bottle

So what’s the mystery? Though Riga is a metaphysical detective, she’s been unable to figure out whether this sandwich is dinner or dessert. (I think it’s a two-in-one).

What do you think? Do you have any simple but gourmet recipes Riga can try out?

Posted by Kirsten Weiss. Kirsten worked for fourteen years in the fringes of the former USSR and deep in the Afghan war zone.  Her experiences abroad not only gave her glimpses into the darker side of human nature, but also sparked an interest in the effects of mysticism and mythology, and how both are woven into our daily lives. She is the author of the Metaphysical Detective mystery series.

We blog here at misterio press once (sometimes twice) a week,  usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

Please follow us so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun! (We do not harvest, lend, sell or otherwise bend, spindle or mutilate followers’ e-mail addresses.)


With a few exceptions (Lee Child’s character, Jack Reacher, comes to mind), we human beings need a sense of roots, a place we call ‘Home.’ For the past decade I’ve had two homes. So if you’ve been wondering where I’ve been this summer, I’ve been in Maryland at our second home.

Before you turn green with envy, read on.

it hasn’t really been a vacation. My husband and I have worked our butts off this summer getting the place ready to put on the market.

I’ve fought the idea of selling the place for several years now, but this summer I was ready. More than ready. It’s an older house and it just needs too much work these days to keep it up.

I put my heart and soul into this little house. When we bought it in 2002, calling it a fixer-upper would have been too kind. It needed a lot of work, and I enjoyed fixing it up (most of the time). I like working with my hands.

Kass's summer house

The BEFORE picture. Note the big-ass AC sticking through the wall. How chic! (Don’t know why the bottom half of this pic is blank.)

With lots of assistance from my brother, and occasionally hired contractors, we’ve modernized the kitchen, finished off what used to be a sleeping porch into a lovely sunroom, plus re-tiled, re-carpeted, re-painted and otherwise refurbished it from stem to stern.


Part of our remodeled kitchen. The rooms are so small it’s hard to get a pic of the whole space.

And it has served us well in so many ways.

When we retired in 2004 and moved to Florida, this little house made that transition go much smoother than it otherwise might have. I was born in Maryland and had lived here my entire life, and my husband had called Maryland home for thirty years. Knowing we still had a place in Maryland made it a lot easier to let go. As my husband put it, we didn’t have to pull up all of our roots all at once.

Also our son was in graduate school at the time, and planned to come back to Maryland to work afterwards. So every summer we would load up our van and make the trek up I-95, to see our son and his wife, my brother and other family members and our Maryland friends. And to relax in the somewhat cooler clime of Maryland for a couple months.

This little house has been a Godsend a couple of times. In 2008 when my daughter-in-law was pregnant with my eldest grandson, I came up a week before he was due and stayed at the house, just two hours’ drive (instead of two days) away from them. When the little guy made his appearance, I was able to be there to help the new parents out.

Kass's study at Maryland house

My writing cave in Maryland.

In 2011, I spent several weeks at the house, just me and the dog, doing some much needed projects (that were easier to do without another person underfoot). And in the evenings, I wrote. That summer I finished the first drafts of two novels, Celebrity Status and Collateral Casualties.

I threw my husband’s retirement party and also his 60th birthday party at this little house. It has many fond memories attached to it–trips to watch 4th of July fireworks in the nearby small town, eating Maryland crab cakes at the waterside restaurants, 4H fairs at the county fairgrounds…

But the time has come to pull up the last of our roots here.

I used to love the projects. Now the aging house is throwing problems at us faster than we can keep up. And many of the friends and family members we came here to visit have moved on. My son and family are now in Pennsylvania and my brother has moved to Florida, 40 miles from our home down there.

We’ll still travel north periodically to visit folks there, but we’ll stay in motels or rented condos like the rest of the tourists.

And I’ll probably sneak over now and again to the old neighborhood, and check on the little house that was my fixer-upper project, my roots in my home state and my writing haven for so many years.

The Maryland house today

The finished product of our efforts this year. I spent my birthday painting that shed!

How important are roots to you? Are you one of those natural nomads who doesn’t seem to need them (like Jack Reacher) or do you need a sense of ‘home’ somewhere? Where are your roots?

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She writes the Kate Huntington mystery series.

We blog here at misterio press once (sometimes twice) a week,  usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

Please follow us so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun! (We do not harvest, lend, sell or otherwise bend, spindle or mutilate followers’ e-mail addresses.)

Who Would You Kill?

Have you heard of the Trolley Problem?


I’m not sure who first posed the dilemma, but I know it has spawned a ton of cool ethical thought experiments that really twist your mind, make you sweat and hope that if you are ever, ever in one of the moral dilemmas posed, someone will just bonk you on the head instead of making you come up with an answer.

Fun stuff.

So, let’s try it here: Say you are standing near the tracks and you see a trolley coming at you out of control and you know (you know because “they” tell you) that unless you pull the lever in front of you (oh yeah, there’s a lever in front of you) that all the people  (say ten) on the trolley are going to die in a horrible, firey crash.

Easy one, right? You pull the lever.


Now “they” tell you that there’s another person standing in the place that the trolley goes when you pull the lever, who is unaware that they are standing in THE place. Let’s picture a grandmotherly figure standing there with a plate of chocolate chip cookies and a big, happy smile.  Now, when you pull the lever to save the ten people, the trolley will jump the track and kill the grandmotherly figure. (The good part is she won’t know what hit her. Okay, I made that part up, she may.)

Now do you pull the lever? Or do you let ten people die because you’re squeamish about squishing grandma?

Upping the stakes: Say, in order to save the ten people and stop the train, you have to actually push grandma onto the tracks, knowing she will be killed. Is one life worth ten? Will you feel like a murderer even if you’ve saved ten lives by killing? Or will you feel like a hero with some residual guilt and remorse?

When you’ve thought about your response, read on:

Interestingly enough, most people are okay with pulling the lever and grandma dying indirectly from their action. However, pushing someone to their death–even if it means saving ten people–is not acceptable. Indirect death is okay, but death directly from action is not.

What they’ve found when an MRI machine scanned the brains of people while working out these moral dilemmas is that the first scenario–pulling the level and indirectly killing someone–activates the part of the brain used for solving problems and reasoning.  But, the part of the brain that lit up while pondering pushing someone to their death was the amygdala, which is responsible for our emotions and how we perceive emotions  in others–empathy.


Take away or damage this part of the brain and you have someone without the ability to feel and without the ability to feel for another person. You have a sociopath. This doesn’t mean all brain damaged people are sociopaths or all sociopaths have brain damage.

In fact, this test was given to people with damage in this brain region, and their answer was to push the person because “logically” sacrificing one life to save ten was the right thing to do. In their mind, pushing grandma is good not evil.

So, how about you? Let’s up the stakes again. What if one of the people in the trolley was your child or mother? Would you push the person to their death then? What if the person to be squished by the trolley was your child or mother? Would you let the other ten people die to save them?

What if a person broke into your home and pointed a gun at your child or mother? Would you shoot first?

If you answered no–that you wouldn’t push the person and you wouldn’t shoot first–do you feel that doing nothing–that standing by impassively and causing death–is more morally right than doing something and causing death?

Me? I think I would pull the lever, not push grandma…and shoot first.