Monday, March 18, 2013

Microreview [book]: The Twenty Year Death by Ariel S. Winter

The New Pulp landscape is littered with tributes to the dead masters of the genre. But banking the fame of classic source material is a difficult trick to pull off. After all, why would I want to read a second-rate Chandler when I can just read Playback for the ninth time? And as far as paeans to Jim Thompson are concerned, well, you can just ask Philippe how those are going.

Fortunately, Ariel Winter's The Twenty Year Death [2012, Hard Case Crime] isn't just an homage to the classics--it's three. "Malvineau Prison" is straight Simenon. While Winter's prose lacks the architectural minimalism of the original Maigret novels, pretty much everything else is spot on. The second novel, "Falling Star," is Philippe Marlowe reimagined. Paradoxically, this was both my favorite and least favorite of the three. That is, I enjoyed it the most, because Chandler is my favorite crime fiction author (and arguably the best writer genre fiction has ever produced), but it was also the least successful at capturing the magic of the original source material. I guess reading it felt a bit like watching a really fucking good Joy Division cover band: for a while you can almost pretend it's really Ian Curtis up there on stage, but then the little things remind you that it's not, and instead it's some other dude who sounds like him but lacks that certain something that made him so special in the first place. But of course, who does?

"Police at the Funeral," by contrast, is a remarkably successful rendering of Jim Thompson. Hell, Philippe might even appreciate it. Of course, I'm not as big a Jim Thompson fan as he is, but this one did make me feel tense and grimy and flipped out just like The Killer Inside Me.

If that was all there was to it, I'd rate the three novels that make up The Twenty Year Death as solid, enjoyable books suitable for most noir fans. But Winter ties these three homages together with a meta-narrative that serves as both commentary on perspectivity in crime fiction and on the evolution of the genre across the three decades of its golden age. American writer Shem Rosenkrantz serves as the linchpin, and we watch his role evolve from witness to victim to perpetrator. The effect is subtle enough  not to take away from enjoyment of any of the book's constituent parts, but provides significant rewards for the reader when all is said and done.

...and kudos to Winter for demonstrating that experimental fiction can still be accessible.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for getting so many things right about the source material; +1 for the meta-narrative, which ties everything together in such a nifty and original way.

Penalties: -1 for the unavoidable "why am I not just reading The Big Sleep again moments."

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10. "Well worth your time and attention."

[To learn more about our non-inflated scoring system, in which the average is a 5/10, click here.]