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Book Reviews

The Twenty-Year Death by Ariel S Winter (Hard Case Crime, £7.99)

Twenty Year DeathAriel 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.

Neil Fulwood


Darkness, Darkness by John Harvey (Heinemann, £18.99)

darknessdarknessIt’s not often I can say that I changed the course of literary history, but after I read a proof copy of John Harvey’s book I emailed him to say he had got a small but important detail of the aftermath of the 1984/85 Miners’ Strike in Nottinghamshire wrong and that he was not as conversant with the history of the  local Robin Hood Railway Line as he could have been. John received the comments on the last day it was possible to make changes, and, rather than responding “nobody likes a smart-arse, especially one who knows about trains”, he was able to get the publisher to make the changes. There we have it then, another novel saved from sin… or at least two small sentences amended that perhaps nobody else would have noticed, but still.

The paragraph above makes it clear that this novel is set in Notts, thirty years ago. It is, and in Notts nowadays too, thirty years after the strike, with Harvey’s Resnick called in to help a cold case when a body turns up, almost certainly someone who disappeared during the strike… a woman who campaigned against the pit closures, her husband being one of the Nottinghamshire majority who did not strike. Resnick had been there at the time of course, running agents in the coalfields who reported to him, and he reported up the line in turn. Resnick was not proud of what he had done, justifying it as helping to stop the prospect of civil war in the coalfields, coalfields in which he had friends on both sides of the picket line. And maybe he had nothing to be ashamed of, and maybe he did.

The first Resnick book appeared in 1989, Lonely Hearts, and this is the twelfth – and last – novel. Five Leaves has a walk on part in the Resnick saga as we published a novella and a limited edition of Resnick short stories, so I am  not unbiased here. I like the series. I’m sorry that this will be the last, but that is John’s choice and he wanted to leave with as good a book as possible. And, mostly, it is. My reserve is twofold – the cold case device used to get Resnick back as a working policeman and his new working partner, the Kenyan Catherine Njoroge. The former I’ll accept, as how else could Resnick return at his age? The latter, in my opinion, does not work as well as some of his previous characters. But these are small points, and Harvey does leave Resnick as he should, working on a major Nottinghamshire story – perhaps the strike was the Nottinghamshire story of the last generation – and with the audience left wanting more. It is also a good fictional coda to the other material that has been coming out on Nottinghamshire in the strike year. And I think he gets the atmosphere of the time and place right.

Charlie Resnick will survive in people’s memory as a wonderful character, naturally flawed. A bit rumpled, a jazz fan, an outsider, a cat lover, someone never quite at ease with his role as a policeman but a copper who tried to use his role for good and as someone able to see the good in others. He will go out in a blaze of publicity – the author has thirty events in his diary already. I’d encourage you to attend at least one, locally at Waterstones, at Lowdham Book Festival, at Worksop and Newark Libraries and at the Bookshop. Though the Bookshop event will focus on John Harvey’s poetry for here too there will be a final volume, published, as this book is, on May 22. See the shop’s events list for details.

Ross Bradshaw

Do Not Pass Go: crime stories by Joel Lane (Nine Arches) and Crime (NWS)

Do Not Pass Go by Joel LaneI read this collection of short fiction by Joel Lane the day after his funeral. I knew Joel slightly and he was a good friend of others I know in Birmingham. His sudden death at fifty was a shock. Joel was starting to make a reputation as a writer of dark fantasy, moving on from his previous work as a poet and a crime writer. His poetry and crime has been published by several good small publishers, this collection coming from the West Midlands’ Nine Arches. Save for the rather utilitarian cover, Do Not Pass Go is a nice pamphlet-with-endpaper production, part of Nine Arches Hotwire series of pamphlet fiction – a series that deserves to succeed.
This collection of five stories is set in the seedy underworld of Birmingham; a place of run-down pubs where one-night-stand pick-ups are best avoided, where blues clubs can give you the blues big time, where builders’ yard tarmac is used other than for road surfacing, where the Gents is awash with drug-dealers and little mercy is given on jobs that could have come from the annals of Murder Inc. And it is always raining. Joel presents the literary equivalent of a what you fear might happen on a late night wait for a long-delayed train on one of the more obscure and badly-lit platforms of Birmingham New Street station.

NWS CrimeNottingham Writers Studio has produced its first sampler – Crime – featuring short fiction by several of its members. The stand-out story is by Alison Moore of Lighthouse fame, much less noir than her usual fare, but a rather tender story which leaves you wanting to know more. It opens in the wake of a minor burglary. As so often with Alison’s stories, her attention to domestic detail creates the atmosphere.

Both collections cost a fiver each.

Ross Bradshaw