Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Book review: The Twenty-Year Death

When I first heard about Ariel S. Winter's debut novel, The Twenty-Year Death, I felt it could've been subtitled 'A Book Written Specifically For People Like Joel'. Having now read it, that feeling was entirely justified - The Twenty-Year Death is imaginative, audacious, compelling and tremendous fun.

The Twenty-Year Death is effectively three separate but linked novels, one set in 1931, one in 1941, and the final in 1951. You could read one without the others without losing too much, but I don't know why anyone would do that. Each section - & here's where my interest hit new heights - is written in the style of a different crime novelist: Georges Simenon, Raymond Chandler and Jim Thompson, respectively. So, it's separate crime novels (check), which are also linked (check), set across decades & different locations (check), and also a clever act of literary mimicry (double check). In other words, a book I was bound to love...

Part one, Malniveau Prison, is set in a small French town. Chief Inspector Pelleter has come up from Paris to speak to a serial killer (whom he caught) held in the nearby prison. While there, though, he gets pulled into helping the small local police force investigate the town's first murder in many years - a former prisoner found beaten to death and left on the side of the road. Pelleter soon uncovers a deeper problem - a string of not just unsolved but unacknowledged murders. He also encounters a local couple - American novelist Shem Rosenkrantz and his young French wife Clotilde. This couple becomes the linking characters between the three novels - sometimes in the foreground, sometimes relatively minor characters, but The Twenty-Year Death is fundamentally their story.

Winter captures Simenon's Inspector Maigret style well. Verargent, the town, is a suitably atmospheric locale - small town, but with a large prison full of some of France's worst criminals just a short drive away. The steady rain through most of the story adds to the gloom as Pelleter's initial reluctance to be there at all, or to get involved in the local crime, becomes an ongoing theme. He wants to leave - and regularly says he's about to - but always the case takes priority. Pelleter himself - the point of view character - while clearly a Maigret stand-in, is developed efficiently. Simenon wrote many many Maigret novels, and Winter somehow conveys the idea that this is just one in an ongoing series about this detective.

Ten years later, we are in the movie business in Hollywood, in The Falling Star. Chandler's Phillip Marlowe is here represented by Dennis Foster, a private investigator asked to keep an eye on aging star Chloe Rose, who believes she is being followed by a mysterious man. (Nobody else, including the studio security chief who hires Foster, believes she is.) Her husband, who wrote the film she is currently making, is cheating on her with her junior supporting actress. This young girl is killed; Foster discovers the body but is warned off investigating the death. Meanwhile, Chloe's male costar is secretly gay, and has asked Foster to help him find his partner, who ran off after an argument and hasn't been seen since.

Like the Chandler novels it draws on, The Falling Star is a complicated, tangled web of relationships and hidden agendas. (It does ultimately make sense, unlike a certain Chandler novel...) Chandler's style - one of the most influential & imitated in English-language 20th century fiction - is not as easy to pull off as many writers think, but Winter does a fine job here, not just in his labyrinthine plotting and in capturing the early 1940s west coast setting so central to Chandler's stories, but also in evoking the two most recognisable aspects of a Marlowe story - the detective's cynical, quippy exterior masking a genuine desire to do the right thing regardless of consequences; and the spot-on similies & descriptions (the first page includes 'It was just about noon on a clear day in the middle of July that wasn't too hot if you didn't mind the roof of your mouth feeling like an emery board', which is about as good as Chandler-aping gets).

And in Police At The Funeral, in 1951 washed-up writer Shem Rosenkrantz is in Calvert City for the reading of his first wife's will. Also there is his estranged son Joe, the latter's fiancee Mary, and Shem's mistress Vee. Shem had succeeded as a novelist, had moderate success as a film writer, but now hasn't written - let alone published - anything in years. He owes money to multiple people, and exists when we catch up with him on what Vee can scam from her other boyfriend, local gangster Carlton.

It's less easy to talk about the plot of Police At The Funeral than the previous two parts without spoilers, but the story follows Thompson's relentlessly grim first-person style. It's a little harder for me to judge this section against Thompson since I've only read one of his novels, the gloriously bleak The Killer Inside Me, but Winter's tone here, through Rosenkrantz's narration, is certainly evocative of that novel's style. Thompson's harsher prose and themes serve this part well, as the story unravels in an increasingly desperate manner. Where Malvineau Prison deals with institutionalised problems, and The Falling Star with the darker side of the glamorous movie lifestyle, Police At The Funeral is a much more personal corruption and collapse.

Each of the three stories that comprise The Twenty-Year Death would have made a fine standalone novel. By combining them, Winter has shown not only an impressive ability to write in the style of these three writers - without ever stooping to parody - but a significant talent for crime novels in their own right. This is not just a faux-clever spoof of three key crime novelists. If you didn't know the three writers he was imitating, or that he was imitating at all, The Twenty-Year Death would still hold up as a compelling and ingenious book. Each of the three has a satisfying conclusion - always the make-or-break factor in crime novels - and I found myself racing through each story. When these are combined in the way that Winter has done here, the result is one of the best novels I've read so far this year. My high expectations for The Twenty-Year Death were more than matched.