Saturday. A chill fall morning. A blanket of light fog lay over Iola. The tiny burg was quiet, as usual, slow to rouse. Except for one place.
Across town, a drab family of brick buildings clung to the city’s north side like carbuncles on the back of a monkey’s ankle. Inside, a festival was taking place. A reading festival.
Unsuspecting families mingled cheerfully in the sun-raked hallways of Allen Community College. Children played and laughed. Neighbors high-fived. No one keeled over, not really. A good fest overall. A swell fest.
Meanwhile, in the library, a man, Tony Piazza, fiddled with his laptop and a campus-issue video projector. He kept one eye on the door, where a few festival-goers entered and quietly took their seats; the other one he sort of just rolled around.
At 11 a.m., the crowd of about 20 grew hushed as Piazza took to the lectern where he delivered a thrilling and richly informative lecture on the history of crime fiction and its evolution from books to movies — the keynote speech at this year’s Iola Family Reading Festival.
IT WAS an auspicious time for a talk on detectives. According to the Turner Classic Movie channel, we’re in the midst of “Noirvember” — an entire month devoted to the art of Film Noir.
For participants in this parochial celebration it means a steady diet of hard-boiled cinema or country-house murder mysteries. Right now, in fact, in dimly lit corners of Twitter (#noirvember), people are posting favorite GIFs from “The Lady of Shanghai,” “Double Indemnity,” “The Maltese Falcon,” “Laura,” “The Third Man.” And, of course, “The Big Sleep.”
“How many of you have seen this movie?” Piazza asked, cueing up a clip of Howard Hawks’ 1946 classic.
Based on the Raymond Chandler novel of the same name, “The Big Sleep” stars Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, whose steamy real-life love affair injected a carnal allure into a film whose advertised subject is crime but whose palpable subtext is sex.
“The chemistry between these two,” said Piazza, clicking play. “Just watch.”
The famous scene ends with the smoky-voiced Bacall looking over her shoulder toward Bogie’s private detective Philip Marlowe: “You know how to whistle, don’t you?” she asks with a delicious grin. “Just put your lips together and blow.”
“If you haven’t seen this movie,” Piazza advised, “see it.”
THE HISTORY of the genre, on the whole, of course, revolves more around the brain than it does the loins.
Accordingly, in his hour-long mystery tour, Piazza, who dates his own love of detective fiction to the days when he was swapping his “Hardy Boys” for his sisters’ “Bobbsey Twins,” provides a neat taxonomy of the many “cerebral” detectives that buttress the literature of crime: Edgar Allen Poe’s brainy August Dupin, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Rex Stout’s obese, orchid-loving Nero Wolfe, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, S.S. Van Dine’s playboy Philo Vance (a favorite of T.S. Eliot).
All of these heroes, though flawed in their own compelling ways (Sherlock injected cocaine to drown his malaise, for example, and Nero Wolfe overate), were unequaled in their “powers of analysis and deduction,” explained Piazza. “It was always satisfying to see them work through the process, to find some truth.”
Piazza’s definition of what qualifies as mystery fiction is refreshingly elastic, ranging from Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex” — “You know,” said Piazza, “it’s basically a ‘who killed King Laius?’” — to the long-running television series “Murder She Wrote” (an “Americanization of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple”).