Like the main character in his novel, Ariel S. Winter walks out of the Owl Bar at the Belvedere and pushes his way through the revolving door in the lobby onto Chase Street, where uniformed officers still stand guard after the Aug. 10 shootings at the Empire House next door. Baltimore is rife with crime-not only the real thing, but the genre. James M. Cain and Dashiell Hammett both spent formative years here, and of course, there's the current husband-and-wife juggernaut of the genre, David Simon and Laura Lippman. Now, 32-year-old Winter has produced a new classic with his massive three-novels-in-one The Twenty-Year Death, which came out earlier this month (Hard Case Crime, $25.99).
The novel's first book, Malniveau Prison, written in the style of the French crime writer Georges Simenon, is set in Verargent, a small town in France, in 1931. Chief Inspector Pelleter is in town visiting the nearby Malniveau prison when a number of the inmates turn up dead, including the father of Clothilde, a troubled young woman married to a famous American writer, Shem Rosenkrantz, who "keeps to himself mostly. That's why he moved out here . . . He was part of the American scene in the city for many years, getting his photograph taken at bars, drinking until sunrise. He produces a book every year or two, and they're apparently big sellers back in the States." During the course of the highly suspenseful investigation-involving Mohossir, a madman who once captured children and forced them to fight to the death and eat each others' corpses-Clotilde goes missing and husband Shem alternates between panic and rage.
The second book, The Falling Star, picks up in Hollywood 10 years after Pelleter solves the first case. Written in the style of Raymond Chandler, while avoiding the cliches that beset so many Chandler wannabes, it is narrated by Dennis Foster, a private dick hired by the studio to follow Clothilde Rosenkrantz, who is now a movie star going by the name Chloe Rose. Shem, so upset by her disappearance in the first book, is indifferent now, writing for the movies, sleeping with her co-star, Mandy Ehrhardt, and hanging out with a pornographer. Things go bad when Shem finds Ehrhardt dead. Again, the action is tight, compact, and riveting.
In the final installment, we find Shem Rosenkrantz in serious decline in a fictionalized Baltimore called Calvert City: He's deep in debt and in serious danger, pimping out a call girl to a gangster. Written in the style of hardest-boiled American crime writer Jim Thompson, Police at the Funeral is the most unrelentingly bleak of the three novels in The Twenty-Year Death. It doesn't so much wrap things up as show them finally unravel.
The element of pastiche involved in The Twenty-Year Death may seem derivative or coy, but it is not. Instead, it allows Winter to show the same character, from a variety of perspectives, in different times and different places. As in life, events that seem central in one place have faded into vague recollections a decade later in another locale.
"When we read a book of fiction, the conceit is that the people are people," Winter says, sitting at his cluttered dining room table in Charles Village, which he calls George Village in the book. "But it's hard to see the character as a whole person like we see them in life. Chandler, for instance, is so stylized. [Humphrey] Bogart is not an individual, he's all wit and gumption. Through these styles, what I hoped to achieve was to see the same individual through the lens of three other characters, to give a fuller picture of a real person."
He was inspired by Faulkner's treatment of time and perspective as much as by any genre writer. But Winter, a serious fan of all three writers he chose to imitate, also hopes that his book will help us reconsider the characters who populate the books of Simenon, Chandler, and Thompson while providing a capsule history of the progression of the genre.
With a home full of Legos and other toys, only a small portion of which his 4-year-old daughter is allowed to play with, and a children's book as his only other published book, Winter is not the most likely suspect to have written the most ambitious crime novel since James Ellroy's Underworld USA trilogy. In fact, the Hopkins graduate didn't set out to write a crime novel at all. The Twenty-Year Death began as an attempt to do something like David Mitchell's genre-defying Cloud Atlas in the ruminative, essayistic voice of the German writer W.G. Sebald.
"It was going to be the record of one man's reading," Winter says. "Malniveau Prison was the first thing he read, but the other parts were going to be in other genres, but it turned out the combination of Mitchell and Sebald was too ambitious."
Early readers liked Malniveau Prison, however, and hoped that Winter would use it to start an Alan Furst-like series of historical thrillers featuring Chief Inspector Pelleter. Winter wasn't happy with the idea, but he saw other possibilities. "I thought: What if I had another recurring chracter, who wasn't the detective," Winter says. He found the character in Shem Rosenkrantz. "It was just an accident that I included this American writer. But then it struck me that he could write in Hollywood-like Fitzgerald did-and if he went to Hollywood, I could do Chandler."
Winter hates telling people the book is about a writer, because "all first novels are about writers," he says. "But this is not a workshop novel. I never would have gotten away with this in a workshop. Genre isn't well received."
Winter had been holing up in the library of Hopkins' Homewood campus for a decade, working on novels with little to no success. "Once I was so desperate, I sent a late night e-mail to [former New Yorker writer] Lawrence Weschler begging for help," he says. "I'm still embarrassed by that."
He got what turned into his first break when he moved to New York for a year and got a job working at the Corner Bookstore on the Upper East Side. One of his regular customers, Chelsea Lindman, later became a literary agent.
"I was a customer and he was my 'guy,'" Lindman says. "I can't say the number of great books he recommended to me. If he wasn't there, I'd leave and come back later."
When Winter moved back to Baltimore, Lindman asked to see his work. "Mainly as a friend," she says. "But we'd talked about writing and I knew there might be something there." She loved The Twenty-Year Death and soon sent it to Charles Ardai, the genre-obsessed publisher of Hard Case Crime.
"It was one of those rare cases where a book comes in over the transom," Ardai says. "I had no knowledge of the author, and I had never worked with the agent."
Hard Case Crime is devoted to reviving the style of the pulp era, when the dime-store crime novels with garish covers ran short at about 60,000 words. "Ariel's book was 180,000 words, so my first impulse was to turn it down on the spot," Ardai says. "But for the heck of it, I decided to read a few pages. That was my undoing. Each of the three books is exactly the length of the old pulp novels. It was set in exactly our era, with exactly the writers we try to celebrate. It is the perfect Hard Case book, but if I hadn't been in a good mood, I would have missed it."
If so, Ardai would have missed out on what promises to be one of his imprint's most successful titles. Though it is too early for sales numbers to come in, the critical reception has been more than anyone could hope for. Stephen King called it "bold, innovative, and thrilling," saying that it "crackles with suspense and will keep you up late." LA Times critic David Ulin raved about the book and, on NPR, called it "serious and ambitious but also playful-a very satisfying read," praising Winter's deft handling of the three different styles.
Winter acknowledges his skill at mimicking other writers. "I can't read Ellroy anymore or my e-mails start to take on his style," he says. But other than the writers he imitated, Winter did little research. "I know nothing about France except what I got from reading Simenon," he says.
The main character's name is one of the only autobiographical elements in the novel. "It's like how you get your porn name or something: I took my middle name, Shem, and my mom's maiden name is Rosenkrantz." Winter, who is Jewish, says he may have made a mistake in giving the character such a Jewish name but not having him face any anti-Semitism in France of the '30s, in Hollywood of the '40s, or Baltimore of the '50s. "Maybe I should have considered having some kind of slur in there," he says.
But the character himself is based largely on F. Scott Fitzgerald. And just as Winter's research on France consisted primarily of Simenon, The Falling Star's depiction of Hollywood comes equally from Chandler and Fitzgerald's Last Tycoon. Fitzgerald also made the transition to Baltimore for the third book a logical choice.
"Fitzgerald used to live in what became my wife's dorm at Hopkins, and I love his work and I have a deep love for the city, so it was a perfect choice," Winter says. "Of course, I changed it around. Fitzgerald was here early and then went to Hollywood, but it made more sense for me to do it this way." Besides, Fitzgerald was only one model for Rosenkrantz, whose first wife's maiden name is Hadley-a sly nod to Hemingway, whose first wife was also named Hadley.
It is the death of this first wife that brings the by-now deeply disturbed Rosenkrantz to Baltimore, or Calvert; Winter changed the names of the locales in order to allow himself more license and as another homage to Chandler who called Los Angeles San Angelino. Rosenkrantz has been called to town for the reading of her will, where he finds that his long-abandoned son will not speak to him.
The depiction of Baltimore in 1951 is the most grim of the three books. Although there is no one like Mahossir, the imprisoned psycho of Malniveau, it is even more horrifying precisely because we occupy the mind of Rosenkrantz as his life unravels completely. There is no sane detective to keep us balanced. We are with him as the consequences of all the previous actions we have witnessed from different perspectives take their toll.
"I sat on the edge of the hotel bed trying to convince myself that I didn't want a drink" is the first line. It is an argument Rosenkrantz loses, and things don't get any better, ever.
This is why Winter chose to funnel this book through the style of Jim Thompson instead of Cain or Hammett, who are more associated with the city. "I wanted to show his unravelling from a first-person perspective," he says. "And even though he never wrote about Baltimore, Thompson is so good at that. Cain and Hammett also have less distinct voices and sound more like Chandler. Thompson's is so distinct."
But for all of his success in creating tormented individuals, Winter is grateful to know little of actual crime. "Like most crime fans, my whole knowledge of the underworld comes from books, movies, and comic books," he confesses. "My life is fairly boring. I'd be nervous about getting the details of crime in West Baltimore right. My wife is a doctor and she has dealt with the drug population and has seen crime firsthand. It's like the difference between The Wire and comic books. I'm much more comfortable with crime in Gotham City."
Winter will have a book signing for The Twenty-Year Death at the Ivy Bookshop Sept. 6.