Noir Turnover

EC’s second Big Read features detective classic

Ben Freund |

It’s the stuff that dreams are made of – no, it’s the stuff that the stuff that dreams are made of is made of. Dashiell Hammett’s original novel, The Maltese Falcon, didn’t include Bogart’s famous line; Hammett’s Sam Spade was too busy splitting his time between fists, dames, bullets, and whiskey to bone up on his Shakespeare. On the mean streets and dirty alleys of a city that doesn’t care, the only poetry is the staccato snap of the .45 in your hand –

Sorry, we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves. This April, Eau Claire is hosting its second annual Big Read. The Big Read is a new national program by the National Endowment for the Arts, in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services and Arts Midwest, that encourages literary reading by asking communities to come together to read and discuss one book. Last year, Eau Claire spent more than $30,000 in NEA grants and local in-kind donations to promote and celebrate a community-wide reading of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. This year, Hammett’s pulp classic is the focus of the event, and everybody can get involved.

On April 5 at 11 am, the Read kicks off at the L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library, where any reader may receive a free copy of the book – straight from the hands of an actual hardboiled Eau Claire police detective. Reading the novel is just the beginning of a full month celebrating the book.

Hammett’s novel didn’t just define the hardboiled genre, its film version gave birth to the noir style of cinematography. Several events will focus on the novel’s transition to film, beginning with a discussion of noir by UW-Eau Claire faculty on April 8, followed by a screening of the first two adaptations (including the famous flop, Satan Met a Lady, a comedic adaptation starring Bette Davis) on April 22, and capped off by John Huston’s masterpiece on April 24.

The month will culminate in presentations by accomplished Hammett scholar and biographer Richard Layman and Hammett’s granddaughter Julie Rivett. Hammett’s personal life was not quite so tumultuous as Spade’s, but it came close: He served in two world wars, stood up to McCarthyism as a civil rights activist and member of the American Communist Party, and based the wise-cracking, hard-drinking Nick and Nora Charles of The Thin Man on his own relationship with playwright Lillian Hellman.

“The events we have planned asks area readers to come together with their neighbors, discuss the work on the porch, and think about why imaginative literature is important in our culture,” said Chris Cox, assistant director of the UWEC library. “The book offers a rollicking ride for those who just want to read a ripping good detective story, and an interesting commentary on the time, on detective fiction, and on noir for those who feel the need to dig a little deeper.”

The Big Read is a response to a 2004 report by the National Endowment for the Arts which found that not only is literary reading in America declining rapidly among all groups, but that the rate of decline has accelerated, especially among the young.

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