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Review of 'The Twenty-Year Death' By Ariel S. Winter

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Review of The Twenty-Year Death By Ariel S. Winter

Hard Case Crime was founded in 2004 with one glorious purpose: to publish noir and crime novels in editions that recalled their 1940s and 50s forbears.

The imprint has churned out over 70 volumes grace with the type of lurid, hand-painted pulp covers that once adorned truck stop spinner racks from coast to coast. The contents have been a combination of long-out-of-print works by established masters and new works in the hard-boiled vein by contemporary authors. The latest -- and most daring -- of the latter is Ariel S. Winter's The Twenty-Year Death (Titan Books $25.99).

Mr. Winter's novel is actually three novels written in the style of three masters of the genre. The first is set in the French countryside in 1931 and composed in the style of Georges Simenon's numerous tales of Inspector Maigret. The second relocates to Hollywood in 1941 and the obsidian wit of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe stories. The third jumps forward again to 1951 and plunges us into one man's maelstrom of agony and self doubt in the inimitable style of Jim Thompson. The three narratives are linked by the presence of alcoholic writer Shem Rosenkrantz and his French bride, Clotilde.

You couldn't marshal three better oeuvres to arrange in sequence for the purpose of charting a downfall. Simenon's Inspector Maigret tends to stand at the center of his cases, adjusting his pipe and shaking his head with resignation at the way petty desires and ill-considered acts can sow tragedy. Philip Marlowe spends his days and (mostly) nights up to his neck violence and vice; he's never under any illusion that the center is holding. By the time you find yourself in the booze-soaked headspace of a Thompson protagonist, the very idea of a center seems like a fairy tale reserved for children.

Mr. Winter does an excellent job of capturing the feel of each of these writers. This is particularly noteworthy in the case of the first novel, Malniveau Prison. Simenon's prose is so clean that it would seem to provide few footholds for homage. Yet Winter's Chief Inspector Pelleter makes a fine stand-in for Maigret, even when he's visiting with Mahossier, a malevolent child killer housed at the titular prison. This character seems more Thomas Harris than Simenon, but Winter makes him feel like an organic part of the proceedings. The lyrics needn't match because he clearly knows the tune.

The second novel is called The Falling Star and it is one of the very best Chandler pastiches you will ever read. This is something of a blessing and a curse. The curse lies in the "s" I added to pastiche: Raymond Chandler's style has been lifted, spoofed, and homaged as much as that of any writer who has ever lived. This lends the proceedings a bit of a "been there, done that" quality. To be sure, this isn't Mr. Winter's fault, and he does a commendable job a channeling the combination of bruised souls, atmospheric detail, and sardonic wit that has helped Chandler endure for so long in the popular imagination. Nevertheless, it does mean that this narrative faces an uphill climb.

Police at the Funeral is the title of the final portion of The Twenty-Year Death. It's a title that tips the reader to the fact that nothing good is about to happen. The tale is so replete with sordid deeds, desperate rationalizations, and other Thompson trademarks that you can practically smell the flop sweat and alcohol on the pages. The only minor quibble here is that the conclusion to the Shem and Clotilde story works just fine for this section, but doesn't feel like the capstone to the epic, three volume journey we've just taken. It's a testament to the extent to which each of the novels that comprise "The Twenty-Year Death" feel complete in and of themselves that this is hardly a deal-breaker.

Minor reservations aside, The Twenty-Year Death is a rewarding work that transcends its high concept origins. I very much look forward to discovering how an Ariel S. Winter original reads. That said, if his next book invites me to follow a couple through the worlds of John D. MacDonald, Elmore Leonard, and James Ellroy, I'll still be first in line.