September 2012

Josh Cook


The Twenty-Year Death by Ariel S. Winter

The Twenty-Year Death, Ariel S. Winter's debut, is one story arc told in three distinct novels that pays homage to three classic crime writers, Georges Simenon, Raymond Chandler, and Jim Thompson. Tragedy follows successful American writer Shem Rosenkrantz and his very young French second wife Clothilde Meprise from place to place and book to book. In the first book, Malniveau Prison, Shem seeks refuge in a small French town with Clothilde, when the body of a prisoner mysteriously appears in the gutter. In The Falling Star, Shem and Clothilde are in Hollywood, where Clothilde, known as Chloe Rose, has become a movie star, when murder demolishes their world again, leaving Clothilde in a private sanitarium. In the third book, Police at the Funeral, Shem attends the reading of his first wife's will and tries to repair his tattered relationship with his son, when an accidental death triggers the final tragedy.

With this construction, Winter creates an optional ambition for the reader. Like Then We Came to the End and The Raw Shark Texts, readers can enjoy The Twenty-Year Death without engaging its ambitious undertakings. Rather than thinking about how place affects behavior, how events define our lives, how people cope with tragedy differently, how power and wealth change society's treatment of crime, and how stories are told through exclusion, readers can just read three very good crime novels. You can chart the course of Clothilde's character, deduce from evidence what happens between books, and connect images from book to book, or not. The ambition does not interrupt the entertainment and the entertainment does not compromise the ambition.

Much is made of the style of the book in the blurbs and other publicity materials, lauding Winter for expertly replicating the styles of Simenon, Chandler, and Thompson, but whatever emulation is present won't be noticed by most readers. With the exception of sentences identifying setting, character, or event, I don't think I could tell a sentence in one book from a sentence in another. Whatever emulation there is, is limited to the kind of story told, rather than the way it is told. In a way, this isn't Winter's fault. Since the establishment of hard-boiled fiction, pretty much all its writers have used the same sentence style. In fact, the genre itself, which Winter so perfectly enters, is defined by a unified style and the greatest of its practitioners (Hammett, in my mind) find ways to inject art into narratives of direct statements.

However, the question of style is relevant in the third book, Police at the Funeral. The first two books are told in the voices of their detectives, Chief Inspector Pelleter, who was in town on other business when the first body appeared, and Dennis Foster, a down-on-his-luck Tinsel Town P.I., but the third book is in Shem's voice. The problem is that Shem is a writer, and not of hard-boiled fiction. As he admits to himself at one point, he isn't very good at the action scenes. Shem's voice should be distinct from the first two, not just because he is on the other side of the crime, but because he is a different kind of character.

Furthermore, as a secondary character, Shem's writerly stereotypes are perfectly acceptable, and, in a way, his drinking and emotional instability highlight one sane response to the death and despair that surround him, but Winter doesn't deepen his character. There needs to be consistency of character from book to book, but people are different from perspective to perspective; you are one person to your coworker and another person to your best friend. Winter could have preserved the totems of character that define Shem in the first two books, while deepening and developing them and other aspects of character in the third. But this is only an issue because of Winter's ambition, and I will always prefer and reward ambition that comes up a little short, over complacency.

In 1959 and 1961, David Markson published Epitaph for a Tramp and Epitaph for a Dead Beat, as gritty, hard-boiled, and pulpy as anything from the golden age of Black Mask. But they were also David Markson novels, written by the eventual author of Wittgenstein's Mistress, one of the most important late-twentieth century postmodern American novels. So you can see critiques of postwar American masculinity, New York City beat culture, and the relationship between justice as pursued by the individual and law as pursued by the state in the story of erudite but troubled P.I. Harry Fannin, or you can read two of the best pulp novels every banged out of a cheap typewriter for rent money.

Winter doesn't have to chase Markson. He could have a great career with The Twenty-Year Death formula, and could develop and perfect the form into a powerful and important novel. Or he could, like Markson, go in a completely different direction, leaving pulp fiction behind for different avenues of entertainment and exploration. Or he could decide to write intelligent, hard-boiled fiction. As a fan of the genre, and of Hard Case Crime's revitalization of it, I would appreciate more Dennis Foster or Chief Inspector Pelleter novels. Regardless of what comes next for Winter, fans of crime fiction should flock to The Twenty-Year Death. It shows the breadth of potential for art remaining in the most American of genres, or it can be a collection of some of the best pulp novels published this year.

The Twenty-Year Death by Ariel S. Winter
Hard Case Crime
ISBN: 978-0857685810
700 pages