How Sam Spade Came to Be Hard-Boiled (Crime Fiction) ~ an encore (Plus a New Release)

We’ve been talking about crime fiction sub-genres the last few weeks, so it seemed like a good time to re-run Kathy Owen’s excellent two posts on hard-boiled crime fiction.

hard-boiled crime fiction -- Cover of Black Mask magazine featuring the Maltese Falcon

Hi, Kathy Owen here, to talk about the “hard-boiled” detective story sub-genre 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.)

This will be in two parts. Today, I’ll talk about the sub-genre in general and some background on Sam Spade’s world. Next week, 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 crime fiction?

The term “hard-boiled” was first coined by Raymond Chandler. It 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. The detective-hero is street-smart and savvy in the ways of the criminal underworld. But 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. Check out his article: 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 of Hard-Boiled Crime Fiction: The Maltese Falcon (1930), by Dashiell Hammett

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.

hard-boiled crime fiction -- poster for the 1941 film of The Maltese Falcon

Since the novel is set in 1920’s San Francisco, let me give you some 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 crime fiction?  Have you seen the Bogart film?  I’d love to hear from you!

Until next time,

And here’s our New Release ~ Available for Preorder Now; Releases on 12/10/22

Fatal Escape, A C.o.P. on the Scene Mystery #2, by Kassandra Lamb

The criminals aren’t giving Chief of Police Judith Anderson much time to acclimate to Florida, or even to finish unpacking!

Only two months on the job and barely recovered from a serial killer case, the newly minted C.o.P. is called out to a scene of what looks like a suicide—an abandoned car on a bridge and a young woman’s body pulled from the river. But why is there no ID on her or in the car? And who wiped all the fingerprints off the car’s exterior?

With the help of “Sheriff Sam” from nearby Clover County, Judith’s search for answers leads to the discovery of an orphaned child and a human trafficking ring operating in her city—and to the realization that she’s up against more than one ruthless foe, perhaps even someone on her own force.

Can Judith find a killer, weed out the corruption in her department, and stop the traffickers… before more lives are destroyed?

Fans of JA Jance’s Sheriff Joanna Brady and JD Robb’s Eve Dallas will love the second installment in this new series about a female chief of police!


Posted by Kathy Owen (aka K.B. Owen). Kathy taught college English for nearly two decades at universities in Connecticut and Washington, DC, and holds a doctorate in 19th century British literature. A mystery lover ever since she can remember, she drew upon her teaching experiences in creating her amateur sleuth, Professor Concordia Wells. In addition to her Concordia Wells mystery series, Kathy writes the Chronicles of a Lady Detective about a lady Pinkerton agent.

Misterio press produces an array of quality crime fiction. We post here twice a month, usually on Tuesdays, to alert you to new releases, to entertain, and to inform.

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  • Reply
    Valerie Brooks
    November 29, 2022 at 2:42 pm

    Thanks for posting this! I write noir, studied film noir in college, and love digging deeply into films like THE MALTESE FALCON. I love hard-boiled, but am more in love with neo-noir films and books. I write what I call femmes-noir as it turns the tables on the classics. My favorite neo-noir besides CHINATOWN is BODY HEAT.
    This is a fantastic blog! Keep up the good work.

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      November 29, 2022 at 10:43 pm

      Thanks for the compliment, Valerie! I have your books on my to-be-read list.

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