Ariel S Winter’s debut has two irresistible selling points: you get three novels in one for your £7.99, and (hard-boiled heaven for genre fans) each novel pays homage to one of the masters of crime writing. As the narrative progresses from 1931 to ’41 to ’51, Winter revives the stylistic tics and thematic concerns of, respectively, Georges Simenon, Raymond Chandler and Jim Thompson. And, boy, does he nail them.
The moral grey areas of Simenon’s worldview seep through the opening novel, Malniveau Prison, as thoroughly as the rain which pours on Winter’s fictive setting throughout the story. The laconic first person narration and serpentine plot twists of The Falling Star are Chandler to a tee; indeed, Winter’s approximation of Chandler’s prose is a lot more convincing than Robert B Parker’s in Poodle Springs. Finally, the claustrophobic, booze-soaked Police at the Funeral is as outright cynical as anything Thompson wrote, albeit lacking – thankfully! – his more overt misogyny.
If this were all The Twenty-Year Death had to offer – mere pastiche – I’d happily recommend it as a pacey, entertaining and cleverly constructed piece of work: the thinking genre fan’s beach novel. But Winter strives for something more. Two subsidiary characters in the first novel assume a greater importance in the second, while events in the third lend weight to seemingly throwaway details in its predecessors. Moreover, these three stylistically very different tales reflect, recontextualise and subvert each other in often unexpected ways.
Winter’s achievement with The Twenty-Year Death is as intricate, intelligent and ambitious as any “literary” novel published in the last few years. Don’t let the genre trappings, the imprint or the deliberately old-school cover art detract: this is a smart, audacious, finely-honed work of fiction, all the more impressive for being Winter’s calling card. It’s anyone’s guess what he comes up with next, but I’m already on tenterhooks.