Following in the footsteps of such magpies as Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez (Grindhouse) and the Alan Moore of the mock-Marvel comic-books series 1963, Ariel S. Winter offers crime-fiction readers a three-course dessert with his debut adult novel, The Twenty-Year Death. (His children’s book, One Of A Kind—a collaboration with illustrator David Hitch—came out in June 2012.) This 670-page novel is actually three full-length, self-contained, but interlocking novels, each written to mimic a master of the style, and set in a period identified with that writer at his peak. The book opens with “Malvineau Prison,” set in the French countryside in 1931, and starring the legendary, saturnine “Chief Inspector Pelleter,” a stand-in for Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret. In town to visit a prisoner he arrested years before—a child-murderer with whom he has developed a Hannibal Lecter relationship—Pelleter becomes involved in a murder investigation.
Two supporting characters from “Malvineau Prison”—Clothilde, the beautiful daughter of a murder victim, and her husband, an American writer named Shem Rosenkrantz, turn up again in the second book, a Raymond Chandler pastiche titled “The Falling Star” and set in 1941. Clothilde has become a Hollywood movie star named Chloe Rose, who, in the words of the studio’s chief of security, “manages that tortured-beauty act from her pictures all the time in real life, too.” Chloe believes someone is following her, so to pacify her, the studio hires a jaundiced private detective, Dennis Perkins, to keep watch over her. He soon gets wrapped up in a case that moves the studio chief to say, while cutting him a check, “It’d make a great picture. Too bad I can’t make it.”
Shem Rosenkrantz takes over as narrator and central figure with “Police At The Funeral,” set in 1951 and modeled on the febrile, corkscrew-viewpoint thrillers of Jim Thompson. Having gone from being a promising novelist to a hack screenwriter riding his wife’s coattails, Shem has degenerated into a forgotten, unemployable drunk, deeply in debt and hoping to collect a few dollars from the estate of his dead first wife, who “knew how to make me jealous from across the room.” (Chloe has long since been committed to a “private hospital.”) Things get violent and ugly, until Shem, gleefully heading toward his own doom, revels in feeling that “my mind [was] shut off and I was focused physical energy.”
Winter gets the tone and the stylistic signatures of his favorite authors down perfectly. That’s the easy part. The tricky part with a project like this is to give it its own identity and reason for being, so it’s not just a hollow exercise in ventriloquism. Winter, who has said he started writing the first book-within-the-book in Simenon’s style “for no better reason than I was reading a lot of his books at the time, loving them, and felt like I could do something much like one,” pulls this off, too. Often, an homage of this kind suffers from extreme humorlessness. Part of what’s impressive about Winter’s book is that, while avoiding parody, he’s able to capture what’s distinctively funny about the authors who’ve inspired his work. There’s a sensibility and worldview in the bridging story, with the hero who’s teased by his old pal for “still treat[ing] every job like it’s a real case,” that’s very different from the concentrated nihilistic charge of the Thompson tribute at the end.
The Twenty-Year Death sags a bit in the middle, because the Raymond Chandler story covers such familiar territory; a lot of imitators have turned out unintentional Chandler parodies—Raymond Chandler among them. And the conclusion doesn’t explode and reverberate the way it might if the links between the three plots were more deeply knotted. But those are quibbles. The usual book from Hard Case Crime, arguably the most important supplier for noir fiction junkies, is intended as a tight, hot little party. Winter’s book was a calculated gamble that pays off as a real late-summer blowout.