Thursday, October 25, 2012

"The Twenty-Year Death" by Ariel S. Winter

Hard Case Crime, 2012

I remember reading that you found a child in a cage, and that there were other small cages next to it . . . And that he had dug a pit in his basement where he would force the children to fight each other if they wanted to be fed . . . An image like that stays with you.  I still have nightmares about it, and that’s just from reading the stories. Is it true?

The Twenty-Year Death has been reviewed high and low on the interwebs, so I won’t belabor the basic details.  Suffice to say it consists of three loosely connected novellas, each set in a different decade and each written in the style of a crime fiction master from each respective decade. 

The first novella, Malvineau Prison, is set in the 1930s.  Police detective Pelleter travels to Verargent, a small town near Malvineau Prison to visit with a Hannibal Lecter like serial killer of children that Pelleter busted some years before.  He quickly gets sucked into the investigation of a recent murder in Verargent and the disappearance of the young French wife of an American writer.  It is the writer, Shem Rosenkrantz, and his wife, Clotilde, that provide the connection between the three novellas. 

I enjoyed Malvineau Prison, but it didn’t captivate me and it took me some time to get through it.  I chalk this up to personal taste.  The writing and story are nothing to quibble with.  The story is a police procedural and differs somewhat in tone from most of the hardboiled material that is typical of Hard Case Crime.  I certainly found myself more and more drawn in as things progressed and I was left motoring along and eager to start the second novella, The Falling Star.

Then he moved his lips as though tasting something, and said, “This is a crap job I have for you, I just want to say that up front. It’s a crap job, but the money’s good and easy and I need someone I can trust.”

The Falling Star is set in the 1940s and finds private eye Dennis Foster taking on a suspiciously simple job watching a big movie studio’s star, Clotilde Rosenkrantz, now known as Chloe Rose.  Foster knows right off that not only is the job crap, but the premise on which he was hired is crap.  He refuses to sit back and take an easy paycheck.  Like any good hardboiled private eye, he quickly follows his nose into trouble.   

This middle novella apes Chandler, of course, and I loved every word of it.  As other reviewers have noted, it’s not at all a stretch to say that nobody has imitated a Marlowe-style detective novel better than Winter does with The Falling Star.  Winter pays uncanny homage to Chandler’s style and adds little flourishes that pull you right into 1940's L.A., or "S.A." in this case.  He also wisely avoids attempts to completely imitate Chandler and write what would be unworthy and distracting “Chandlerisms”; those off-the-wall metaphors that nobody but Chandler can really pull off.  

By the time I finished The Falling Star I was hooked deep and cruising along at racing speeds, ready for the rocket-ride of the last novella, Police at the Funeral.

The elevator came, the bell dinged like the end of a round, and I watched them get on. Just before the doors closed, they turned, and Joseph gave me a withering look of pure hatred, a look that hurt more than any words could have, used to, as my years of drunkenness had made me, declarations of disgust, pathetic amusement, consternation, pity, and sadness.  I didn’t think I’d ever be able to pick up my feet to walk a single step. And my empty stomach was much too hollow.

Shem Rosenkrantz has returned to his hometown to attend the reading of his ex-wife’s will.  His life is a shambles and he is desperate for cash.  The only bright spot is that he has managed to stay straight and on the wagon for a while.  Shem gets nothing from the estate.  A traumatic encounter with his son and the wrath of his trashy girlfriend leads Shem to the hotel bar . . . let the Jim Thompson inspired madness begin. 

Police at the Funeral is the perfect finish to the loosely connected stories that have been steadily building steam from Malvineau Prison on.  It is a harrowing lunatic ride to a head on collision and black conclusion.

Here is a great interview with Mr. Winter.