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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23 thoughts on “How Sam Spade Came to Be Hard-Boiled, Part 1

  1. Catie Rhodes

    I’ve read the book and seen the film. But it has been ages.

    Kathy, this was a super-interesting post. I loved the links (especially the Noir/Losers article). You taught me something today about two genres I love. 🙂

  2. Stephen Campbell

    Thanks for a wonderful post. It seems as though many different genres are being mixed together now and it’s nice to see you put a stake in the ground with a beautifully put definition. The appeal of the “hard drinking, cynical private eye with his own moral code,” seems to be hard wired into us as a species. I can’t wait to read part two.

    1. K.B. Owen Post author

      Stephen, great to have you visit! I taught this novel in my mystery fiction course at GW ages ago. It’s a lot of fun to get a chance to open up the discussion again.

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  4. Marcy Kennedy

    This was really interesting. I’m more of a cozy mystery girl myself (I’m looking forward to the next Concordia book) or a romantic suspense or psychological thrillers. Both hard-boiled crime fiction and noir are too far in the other direction of the spectrum for me.

    1. K.B. Owen Post author

      Marcy, so glad you’re looking forward to the next book (won’t be long now!). Even though I think of myself as a cozy fan, some of these hard-boiled classics are real faves of mine. 😉

  5. Karen McFarland

    Kathy, you are the Rockstar of mystery girlfriend! That was an amazing explanation of “Hard Boiled.” I loved the way you broke it all down. Yes, although I haven’t read the Maltese Falcon, I did watch the movie. A long, long time ago. Well, Humphrey Bogart, ya know? I, like Marcy, am a cozy mystery girl. So I loved Concordia! Hurry up Kathy with the next one! lol. {{Hugs!}} 🙂

    1. K.B. Owen Post author

      Aww, Karen, thanks for everything! No worries – the sequel should be out by Thanksgiving! 😀

  6. Kassandra Lamb

    I love learning the history behind things!

    The part I found most interesting was how Sam Spade couldn’t trust anyone because the cops, etc. were so often corrupt. I’d always thought he was just a little paranoid. Now I know he had good reason to be distrustful.

    1. K.B. Owen Post author

      You and I definitely have a love of learning in common, Kass – it’s so cool to learn the history behind this stuff. 🙂

  7. Margot Kinberg

    Kathy – This is a really interesting post, for which thanks. No doubt about it that the ‘hardboiled’ sub-genre has been an integral part of the crime fiction landscape for a long time. And Sam Spade is an iconic example. Thanks 🙂

  8. Sharla Rae

    Oh, I can’t wait to see the rest of the series. My dad used to read the “hard boiled” short stories to us from his magazines when we were kids. My mom gave him the evil eye when he did this and he had make up something whenever the language or subject turned a bit x-rated or what mom considered too x-rated for her little girls. Ha! But we’d sit quite and listen for a long time. Could be one of the reasons I wanted to write.

    I think we all like to incorporate a bit of the hard boiled in our Alpha heroes so I look forward to hearing more about this.

  9. Patricia

    Hard boiled is a term I use often and always when referring to eggs. I did wonder where that term came from and what exactly it meant, because I’ve seen it on occasion. I was pretty accurate in my guess, but this is interesting stuff here.

    As always, fun stuff from Kathy.

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

  10. Gloria Richard Author

    K.B.! Thank you! My brain barely had time to think “I need to Google…” when you provided the derivation for me. Yes. I can think off-topic and still absorb information.

    It creates some whacky unusual conversation whip-lash when (1) engaged in a conversation. and (2) my brain train’s destination seems more interesting than the topic until discussion.

    GREAT NEWS! I didn’t go off track with your post. Yes. I love everything unconventional about the hard-boiled private eye concept. I saw the Maltese Falcon eons ago and loved it.

    Thanks for the Intel. Grumble, grumble for making me wait until next week for the second installment.

  11. K.B. Owen Post author

    LOL, Gloria, patience is a virtue…I know what you mean about the “brain train” going off in different directions. Happens to me all the —squirrel!

    Great to see you here!

  12. Amy Kennedy

    So interesting!
    I saw the movie a bajillion years ago, and while I do enjoy hard boiled, I always am disappointed in the inevitable betrayal by the woman. You’d think I would know by now, that you can’t trust anyone in “hard boiled” mysteries.

  13. Pingback: How Sam Spade Came to Be Hard-Boiled, Part 2 | Misterio Press

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