Thursday, November 17, 2011

No “Parlor Trick or Virtuoso Finger Exercise”

Back in September, when I interviewed editor Charles Ardai about the comeback of his hard-boiled paperback line, Hard Case Crime, he mentioned that he was very much looking forward to the publication, in August 2012, of a first novel called The Twenty-Year Death. “It’s 700 pages long, and it’s a virtuoso performance, truly outstanding. It earns every one of those 700 pages,” Ardai said. “The author’s name is Ariel S. Winter, and mark my words, you’ll be hearing a lot more about this fellow in years to come.”

As you might expect, I was intrigued. So I was glad yesterday to hear more about this novel and its author. First, a bit of background on Winter:
A long-time bookseller at The Corner Bookstore in New York City and Borders in Baltimore, Ariel S. Winter is also the author of the children’s picture book One of a Kind (Aladdin) and of the blog We Too Were Children, Mr. Barrie, devoted to the rediscovery of long-forgotten children’s books written by literary icons such as John Updike, Langston Hughes, and Gertrude Stein. His writing has appeared in The Urbanite and on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and in 2008 he won the Free Press “Who Can Save Us Now?” short-story contest. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland. He’s 31.
Second, Ardai supplied me with more information about The Twenty-Year Death’s plot and its unusual structure:
[I]t’s the story of a husband and wife whose lives collapse as violence intrudes--not an unusual premise for a noir novel. But what makes the book really out of the ordinary is the form Winter chose for it: he decided to tell the story of these two doomed characters in the form of three separate, old-fashioned crime novels, each set in a different decade and written in the style of one of the iconic mystery writers of that time. Each is a complete novel--it honestly feels like opening a Christmas package and finding new novels by three of your favorite pulp-era crime writers. The first is set in 1931 and features a French police inspector investigating the death of a convict in a rain gutter 20 miles away from the prison where he was supposed to be serving a 40-year jail sentence. The second is set in 1941 and features a hard-boiled private eye in Hollywood who is hired by one of the big movie studios to watch over one of their leading ladies, who either is showing signs of paranoid dementia or is actually being stalked by a mysterious man on the set of her new picture. And the third is set in 1951 and puts us deep inside the dark and troubled mind of a desperate man, a drunken writer who has lost almost everything he had and is about to tip over the edge separating “troubled” from “dangerous” In none of the cases does Winter name the author being evoked (nor does he use any characters from the authors’ work, obviously), but he inhabits their voices and world-views so brilliantly that any reader who knows and loves our genre will instantly recognize the landscape in each.

What’s more, these aren’t just pastiches--what elevates this above a parlor trick or virtuoso finger exercise is that each book works not only as a tribute to a great mystery writer of the past but also as a standalone novel with substance and emotional heft, and also as part of a combined larger whole. It’s fascinating, for instance, to watch a background character in the first book become a more central figure in the second and then the first-person narrator in the third. I don’t know any other book that’s ever done anything like it. (The closest parallel may be Tom Stoppard’s play
Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which turns the spotlight on two of the minor background characters from Hamlet. Probably not an accident that the main character here is named Rosenkrantz…)

In any event ... I fell in love with the book, and bought it even though it’s three times the length of our usual books (by far the longest book we’ve ever published--180,000 words), and even though you’re always told, as a publisher, that first novels don’t sell. I did it because it’s a stunning performance and just left me grinning the widest grin I’ve had on my face for a long, long time.
Although that last paragraph sounds rather like publisher hype, I haven’t known Ardai to indulge in blatant overstatement. He’s always struck me a fairly honest type. So finding him this excited about a book makes me want to take notice of it.

I am further attracted by the cover of The Twenty-Year Death. The artist here is Chuck Pyle, who was also responsible for the front of the very first Hard Case release, Lawrence Block’s Grifter’s Game, in 2004. As Ardai explains, Pyle’s illustration for The Twenty-Year Death “features the Hollywood star from the 1941 novel ... and actual Hollywood star Rose McGowan posed for the painting.”

This is quite a package of enticements for a crime-fiction lover like me. Let’s hope the novel itself measures up to Ardai’s fervor.

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