Quentin Tarantino is a student of film, like most directors. But he truly loves film in a way that transcends most directors. It is clear in his interviews, and it is clear in his work. He lifts quite liberally shots and styles from others in homage. All artists borrow, and it takes an encyclopedic knowledge and some creative vision to know what to pull from to best tell your story. Tarantino found massive critical and mainstream success with Pulp Fiction, a movie that interwove three stories together in pulp-noir fashion.
In reminiscent style, Ariel S. Winter swung for the fences in his debut novel, The Twenty-Year Death. It too pays homage to great mystery authors since passed and interweaves three stories together. The three tales (books within a book really) span decades and each center on different protagonists, but tie together through the common character of Shem Rosenkrantz. Perhaps more impressive is that Winter didn’t simply pull a few time-honored phrases or techniques from masters of the genre. Each of the three books emulates a specific author. ”Malniveau Prison” is inspired by George Simenon, “The Falling Star” pays tribute Raymond Chandler and “Police at the Funeral” pays homage to Jim Thompson. Together they do culminate in one epic tale.
I respect the hell out of the approach. On the whole it works, and I do largely understand why Winter is being lauded with pretty hefty praise. Myself, I will stop short of likewise calling it genius.
“Malniveau Prison” is a slow burn, but without the subtle sex appeal the genre is known to conjure. Simenon’s style is simplistic. It is easy to approach, and there is certainly a mass appeal of readable literature. It is possible to write in a direct, simple manner yet paint vivid pictures. That takes great craftsmanship that Winter doesn’t quite demonstrate yet.
A non-traditional plot is offered up with a dead prisoner outside of prison. Many characters don’t even seem to care about solving the murder mystery itself. This first story is light on tension. The protagonist was likable and the concept decent, but I wasn’t really drawn in as much as I would have liked. Chronologically it is the first story, but I might have preferred if it was presented second. Sometimes telling the story out of order actually works better.
“The Falling Star” was easily my favorite of the three books. You get a sense very early on that something isn’t right. Dennis Foster provides an edgier protagonist with more attitude. Unlike ”Malniveau Prison”, this one gets its hooks in you early with the glamour and seediness you expect from Hollywood.
“Police at the Funeral” is one story in three, but is a microcosm for the book on the whole. The plot of the recurring characters culminates into the larger arc here. This story is the most difficult to pull off with such a non-traditional, and largely a non-sympathetic protagonist. I’m torn in that I appreciate when someone deviates from the norms of tired formulas, but most days we want a good guy and we want a bad guy.
This is a psychological drama that could be perceived as horror. We witness the degradation of a human being. Tumbling down the rabbit hole of where circumstance and poor decisions may bring can be effective and terrifying. But I believe it is most effective when you can see yourself somehow on that same path with an unlucky twist of fate, such as in David Fincher’s underrated movie, The Game. This story reminds me of another movie, one by David Mamet and Stuart Gordon called Edmond. We see Shem’s flaws early in ”Malniveau Prison” and ”The Falling Star”, even in the background. Fate isn’t kind to him, but he didn’t have much in the karmic piggy-bank either.
The high praise for this book no doubt stems from others who feel Winter was fully successful in his gutsy endeavor. Even if I don’t share that opinion, there is no shame in falling just short of lofty goals, especially in your first outing. The book provides good value with 3 separate stories that can be consumed individually if the others don’t appeal to you. If anything, this book has me looking forward to Winter’s next adult novel (he has written a children’s book previously). I’m curious to see Winter write fully in his voice when not channeling the voice of others.
The Twenty-Year Death will be released on August 7th, but can be pre-ordered on Amazon today. I’m awarding it 4/5 stars.