There are many useful references on the definition of hard-boiled fiction on the internet, but I found Gary Lovisi's article titled The Hard-boiled Way very helpful.
Some may think it’s only fiction about violence, often very brutal violence, but that’s not a necessary ingredient.And..
Authentic hard-boiled fiction is also about real people trying to live their lives, to make it in the day-to-day and getting smashed down inch by inch, lower and lower. But they still hang in there. They refuse to go down for the count.There is a lot more to the article and I highly recommend it.
I am sure some hard-boiled fiction is too brutal, violent, or dark for me, but this book was not. Most people will be familiar with the plot, so I will include just a brief synopsis. The story is set in San Francisco, in the late 1920's. Sam Spade is a private detective hired by a beautiful and mysterious woman to help her find her sister. Very shortly there are two murders, and the police suspect Spade in at least one of those crimes. Spade gets mixed up with a strange group of people hunting for an elusive statuette of a falcon.
John Huston's adaptation starred Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, and Sydney Greenstreet. Two other actors I especially liked were Ward Bond as a police detective and Elisha Cook, Jr. as the gunsel.
Although the Sam Spade of the book is a different physical type than Humphrey Bogart, I put Bogart in the role as I read the book. I only noticed a few scenes in the book that were omitted from the movie. They were no great loss to the film, but they did add more depth to the characterizations and relationships in the book. Otherwise the film is pretty much a straight adaptation of the book, with the dialog matching Hammett's writing very closely.
Mary Astor played the role of the femme fatale perfectly. From the beginning, Spade is not sure how much he can trust her. In my opinion, Astor kept that suspense going to the very end. Having seen the movie so many times, I cannot remember my reaction the first time I viewed the movie. And every time I see it again, I find new things to love about it.
The book was the basis for two other film versions prior to the 1941 version. The first adaptation, released in 1931, was also titled The Maltese Falcon and starred Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels. The second, released in 1936, was titled Satan Met a Lady, and starred Bette Davis and Warren William. I have seen both earlier films. They do not come close to the level of the 1941 adaptation, but they are still interesting. There is a great post on Satan Met a Lady at Davy Crockett's Almanack.
Publisher: Vintage Crime / Black Lizard, 1992 (orig. pub. 1930)
Length: 217 pages
Format: Trade paperback
Setting: San Francisco
Source: I purchased my copy.