Sunday, 31 August 2014

The Twenty Year Death by Ariel S. Winter

In a recent post I wrote about the admirable publisher Charles Ardai's Hard Case Crime. I thought I was fairly familiar with their list of authors. But thanks to a recommendation by Hard Case's lovely UK editor Miranda, I have been introduced to the work of someone I've never heard of — Ariel S. Winter.

Winter has written a remarkable trilogy of books called The Twenty Year Death. Theoretically you can read them in any sequence, but I followed Miranda's advice and read them in strictly chronological sequence, and I'm glad I did.

The novels are entitled Malniveau Prison, The Falling Star and Police At the Funeral and they are set in 1931, 1941 and 1951 (hence the umbrella title for the series). They are available as individual volumes or in a large compendium edition. I don't think it matters what form you buy them in, but if you enjoy crime fiction you should definitely buy them,  and read them.

Ariel S. Winter has created a brilliant series of — I was going to say pastiches, but that doesn't really do justice to the books. A pastiche is a work deliberately fashioned in the style of someone else. And Winter accomplishes this superbly. Each volume is written in the manner of a different giant of the genre. But his achievement goes way beyond that.

Malniveau Prison, which is set in rural France, skilfully evokes the understated, unemphatic, matter-of-fact style of  Georges Simenon, famed for his Maigret detective stories. In terms of plot Malniveau Prison is fleetingly reminiscent of Thomas Harris's Hannibal Lecter novels, with its mad killer in prison advising and teasing the detective. Something of a cliché, I know, but don't let that put you off. It's the last time in the trilogy that Winter flirts with the familiar, and his book soon moves in a different direction.

The writing is impressive and cleverly evokes the original with its subdued Simenon-esque descriptions: there is a "dirty-sheep-coloured expanse of clouds." As a train approaches a railway station "the tracks began to sing their metallic whine." A police officer stands "with a case file open... as a man reads a newspaper while waiting for the bus."

The gripping story, low-key style and vivid characters make Malniveau Prison a real treat, something very fresh and surprising in modern crime fiction. But Winter is just warming up.

With The Falling Star he really hits his stride. This forties crime novel is set in a fictional version of Los Angeles (called San Angeles, or SA for short) and not surprisingly is written in the manner of Raymond Chandler. There is no shortage of Chandler pastiches and parodies out there in the world of fiction, but Winter has done a particularly splendid job, bringing his own distinctive twist to the material.

And he comes up with some lovely, amusing moments which live up to the original. A thug follows the hero "with all the subtlety of a white suit at a funeral." At the race track an announcer's voice "droned like a dentist's drill." The detective confronts an untrustworthy old friend and says "We stared at each other. Taxidermied deer couldn't have done it better." And there are moments of simple beauty: "He opened his hand in front of him as though letting a lightning bug go."

And this lively, immaculately crafted Chandlereque prose is used in service of an engrossing and unpredictable story of murder and obsession on the fringes of the movie business, with a compelling plot and agreeable sudden bursts of violence.

The Falling Star is a terrific novel and I didn't think Winter could top it, particularly since the third book Police At the Funeral (great title) evokes the works of Jim Thompson. Thompson is undoubtedly a figure to be reckoned with in crime fiction. He has written significant novels some of which (like The Killer Inside Me) border on depraved genius. There is no denying the power and allure of his work, particularly when translated into films, like The Getaway, The Grifters, The Killer Inside Me, or even This World, Then the Fireworks (another brilliant title). But Thompson's books are seedy and sordid and when I'm reading them I often feeling like I'm wearing someone else's (dirty) underwear. Indeed, I find some of his stuff unreadable. 
So it is ironic that my least favourite author should have yielded the strongest novel in Ariel S. Winter's trilogy — but there you go. I suspect it's something to do with the books building up steam and Winter getting better as he went along, not to mention wanting to write a corking climax to the series. Also, there's the simple fact that he's a better writer than Thompson, so when he adopted Thompson's tools and material, Winter put them to better effect.

In any case Police At the Funeral is, as they say, a smasheroo. Jim Thompson was a hopeless drunk who wrote about drunkenness and hopelessness. Winter captures that magnificently. His novel is gripping and clammy. Reading it I felt hopeless, I felt like a drunk, and I felt guilty of murder.
And the writing is just gorgeous. The protagonist describes "a diffuse headache sitting on the top of my head like a newsboy's cap" and how "the sight of the bed hammered me with exhaustion." Or how about this for the description of a noir heroine "She leaned forward and the candle lit her face from below as though she were telling a ghost story at a camp fire."

(Warning: the following paragraph contains some spoilers of this book.)

And as the crazed, bloody events crowd in on the narrator they reach a pitch of madness which is both hilarious and horrifying: "I just needed to let myself into the suite with the key before Browne got back, beat Vee to death, and then wait for Browne with Vee's gun."

The novel, and the trilogy, build to a magnificent ending which does justice to this volume and the entire series. Reminsicent of Hemingway's The Killers, it's set in a rural location — "It was in a diner in Iowa. There was nothing but corn all around and enough sky for everyone on the planet."

Ariel S. Winter has proved himself to be an outstanding writer, and The Twenty Year Death is a milestone in crime fiction.

(Image credits: all the Hard Case Ariel S. Winter covers are from Good Reads. The movie edition of Jim Thompson's Killer inside me is also from Good Reads. The vintage Signet cover of The Getaway is from The Eclectic Reader. And the cover of the vintage Gold Medal edition of The Killer Inside Me is from Indie Wire where there is an interesting article which touches on Jim Thompson's work as a screenwriter with Stanley Kubrick, and it's well worth a look.)

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