Wednesday, 15 August 2012


My review of Ariel Winter's impressive troika of a first novel appeared in August 4 edition of The Spectator. You can link to it at the Speccie's website here. What follows is the review as it appeared, except I have corrected one mistake, a 'who's' for 'whose', which was mine--I am inclined to blame predictive text, as I really do know the difference.

Three Shades of Noir

In the days of cheap paperbacks, publishers sometimes printed two pulp novels in one volume, back to back. Ariel Winter has done them one better, because The Twenty Year Death consists of three novels, dealing with murders committed over the course of two decades, each told in the style of a great crime writer.

The first is set in 1931 France, hommage to Georges Simenon's Inspector Maigret. A corpse found floating in the flooded drains of Verargent turns out to come from the local prison, from which there is no escape. Inspector Pelleter has just visited the prison, to interview a serial killer he captured, and is drawn into the investigation. Among the anomalies he discovers is the murdered man's daughter, the beautiful Clothilde-ma-Fleur, still a teenager but living near the prison and married to a successful American writer named Shem Rosenkrantz.

Maigret novels are drenched in atmosphere; their physical setting reflects the psychological background to the crimes, and Winter gets this perfectly. Pelleter cuts through, almost forensically, the many-layered barricades thrown up to outsiders by a provincial French town, even as more murdered prisoners are discovered. And his interviews with the serial torturer of children in the prison put the puzzle of the his investigation into a very modern context, giving Pelleter a perspective even Maigret might envy.

Ten years later, The Falling Star is set in Hollywood, where detective Dennis Foster is hired by an old friend working security at a film studio. Their French leading lady, Chloe Rose, is convinced she is being stalked. Chloe, of course, is Clothilde, moved with Shem to America and become a star, but she seems to be cracking under the weight of her success and Shem's relative lack of it. Shem is having an affair with a would-be actress, and when she is found horribly murdered, Foster begins to think he might have been set up to take the fall.

The hommage this time is to Raymond Chandler, but Winter wisely avoids imitating the master's style; it's been done too many times, and done well too few. But he catches perfectly the essence of Chandler's underlying tone of despair and disgust at the corruption Philip Marlowe finds under the shiny surface of Los Angeles, where even the most savage crimes can be buried if you've bought the right connections. Foster resembles Chandler's earlier detectives, Carmody or Dalmas, the slightly more pulpy prototypes for Marlowe, and like them he does as much of the right thing as he can. The killings are stopped, reputations are preserved, and Chloe Rose winds up protected in a sanitarium. 

Which builds to the climax, set in 1951 and written in the style of Jim Thompson, the master of nihilistic pulpy noir. Rosenkrantz, by now a drunk and a has-been, who'd be played by Sterling Hayden in the film version, returns home for the funeral of his first wife, hoping to receive something from her inheritance that will help him pay for Clothilde's continued institutionalisation. His trip has been financed by his girlfriend Vee, travelling with the gangster whose mistress she is on the side, and Shem faces the prospect of a reunion with his estranged son, born after he left his wife not knowing she was pregnant.

As you'd expect from Thompson, Shem's hopes soon crumble, even as he begins working with a local journalist on a play, The Furies, which might win his reputation back. He commits an accidental murder, gets conned by Vee, and even the master stroke he conceives to solve all his mounting problems goes wrong. It's told in the delusional sort of first-person inebriated that Thompson loved, and as he knew, there is only one way these things can end.

That is the point, and it's easy to lose it behind the audacity of Winter's stylistic experimentation. These three books are indeed one novel, and the The Twenty-Year Death is not a specific murder, but the slow death of an artist, killed by love, by his inability to overcome his own insecurities and live up to its promise. By borrowing the voices of these three masters, Winter has also latched onto a basic truth they all shared, the power of The Furies which defines noir: love is deadly.

Ariel S.Winter, Titan/ Hard Case Crime, pp.672, £18.99, ISBN: 978085768581

1 comment :

Ruzz said...

Went out at once and bought this. Read it over the weekend. Verdict - hmmm... but well worth reading.

I think my problem was probably that I don't particularly enjoy Maigret (I know this is a Grave Error, but there you go). So the fact that the first book is a "pitch perfect" pastiche of Simenon it something of a problem. And [POSSIBLE SPOILER alert] the fact that the actual murders aren't really (IMHO) solved as such.

The second book - the Chandler homage - is excellent. Again, the murder mystery element is a bit of a throwaway, but who cares. Great stuff.

The Jim Thompson is as hyper-kinetic as the real thing, and hurtles past at such a pace that it's hard to know what to make of the actual story.

I think it's a great achievement - but the stories suffer. I think the focus has been on the style - and ultimately the individual stories aren't especially good as crime stories - and the overarching narrative arc is equally weak.

Fascinating experiment - and I'm very glad I read it - but not wholly successful, I think.