The Twenty-year Death
Ariel S. Winter. Hard Case Crime, $25.99 (672p) ISBN 978-0-85768-581-0
This isn’t a first novel so much as a series of three discrete but interrelated first novels, each written (with apologies from the author) in the style of a different iconic thriller writer—Georges Simenon, Raymond Chandler, and Jim Thompson, respectively. This is a bold, not to say supremely cheeky, conceit—and if Winter hasn’t completely channeled the hard hearts and gimlet styles of these dark, departed legends, the good news is that he delivers something even better: a hell of a lot of fun. The noir triptych is nominally linked by the presence of an alcoholic (but of course!) American writer, Shem Rosenkrantz, who remains largely—if menacingly—in the background for the first two installments before emerging (in first person) center stage in the last, best story. Set in the fictitious Verargent, France, circa 1931, the first book, Malniveau Prison, revolves around the mysterious death of a prisoner—the father of one Clothilde-ma-Fleur Meprise, Rosenkrantz’s beautiful wife. (Along the way, some children—and Clothilde herself—go missing.) The search for the killer leads to a mysterious psychopath with a penchant for torturing tots, as well as a coverup at the titular prison. In the second, The Falling Star, set in 1941, Rosenkrantz is a womanizing L.A. screenwriter on a self-destructive slide. His wife, now working under the name Chloë Rose, is a successful but unstable starlet who suspects she’s being followed. A suitably laconic Chandlerian PI, Dennis Foster, is enlisted to help the troubled star—but is he really being set up for a homicidal fall? In the third, and arguably darkest, tale, Police at the Funeral, it’s 1951 in Calvert, Md., and Rose has been institutionalized, leaving Rosenkrantz—now a remorseful has-been—roiling in the tide of his boozy dissolution. “Yeah, I’d always gotten a raw deal, and I was too pathetic to do anything about it, and I hated myself for that” pretty much sums up the self-inflicted purgatory this antihero wallows in. The stories work wonderfully well individually, but taken together create a tapestry of associations and reflections, sort of like mirrors trained on other mirrors. The whole, as they say, is greater than the sum of its parts. Along the way, Winter manages to deliver more than a few winking nods to genre tropes without ever descending into the arch or the obvious. Though there’s clearly something meta (not to say postmodern) about the whole endeavor, Winter never loses touch with his genre heart; the books practically radiate grassroots passion. No, he does not entirely capture Chandler’s verbal color or masterful use of metaphor (but who does). Nor does he completely conjure up Thompson’s furious fusion of horror and hilarity (but who does). He comes damn close to capturing Simenon’s slick, spare procedural vibe. But in the end all these comparisons are, yes, odious—because Winter has created something more than a facile feat of literary ventriloquism. He has written a truly affecting and suspenseful triple treat that transcends the formal gimmick at its heart. Agent: Chelsea Lindman, Nicholas Ellison Agency. (Aug.) Reviewed by J.I. Baker, who is the author of The Empty Glass, which Blue Rider Press will publish in July.
Reviewed on: 06/11/2012
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