Our friends over at Titan Books just published a fantastic hardcover collection of three crime stories by new author Ariel S. Winter. The Twenty-Year Death is three exciting pulp noir fiction novels, each written in the style of past mystery genre authors; Georges Simenon, Raymond Chandler, and Jim Thompson. All three novels are tied to the lives of an American writer who’s failing career is driving him deeper into alcoholism and that of his beautiful young wife, who’s destined to be a Hollywood starlet. In stories spanning 1931 to 1951; Winter introduces us to a cigar chomping french detective who is compelled to solve a string of murders in Malniveau Prison. He then takes us to Hollywood where a “hardboiled” private investigator tries to uncover who’s behind the brutal murder of a young actress in The Falling Star. Then finally, Winter gives voice to our stories failing writer in Police at the Funeral, where Mr. Shem Rosenkrantz can’t escape a series of murderous tragedies. Each story has the “voice” of it’s time period and Winter does a great job of taking us back to the pulp fiction of half a century ago when CSI didn’t exist and answers couldn’t simply be “googled.”
After I had finished reading The Twenty-Year Death we got in touch with Mr. Winter, who volunteered his time for a written interview here on Atomic Moo. Check out our Q&A with writer Ariel S. Winter, and please follow the links back to Titan Books or on Amazon.com where you can get your own copy of this amazing book to read.
Q&A With Ariel S. Winter
Q: What are some of the challenges of writing historical noir fiction?
A: Despite what most people would think, I did almost no historical research outside of reading the books of Simenon, Chandler, and Thompson. I wanted the books to read as though they were written at the time. That meant I didn’t want to explain the time, simply to embody it. When you write a book now, you don’t explain what a cell phone is when a character uses one. Similarly, Chandler doesn’t explain a reference to a war charity or gas rationing. Those are things the readership would know about, because they were living in the time too.
But even absolving myself of historical research, there’s still the challenge of getting the language right. That’s something I wasn’t always aware of in the writing. When the advance reader copies went out, one reader flagged the phrase “pop the clutch,” which I used in the first book, set in 1931. Turns out the idiom “pop the clutch” didn’t get coined until the 1950s, which was something that neither my editor nor I knew, because “pop the clutch” is a historical phrase to us either way. There were a few other things like that, which readers caught in the ARC.
Q: How did being a Literary Investigator help you in writing the Twenty Year Death?
A: I write a blog called We Too Were Children, Mr. Barrie about children’s books written by adult literary authors. For example, Gertrude Stein wrote a children’s book. Or to keep it noir, Patricia Highsmith co-wrote and illustrated a picture book. When I do entries for the blog, I try to be exhaustive in my research. I track down every edition of the book. I read biographies. I dig up contemporary reviews. I research the illustrator’s career. I want to give the book historical and biographical context. When working on The Twenty-Year Death, I took a similar approach, in that I read as many books by each author as I could, but I also did biographical research, reading some of Chandler’s journals, a biography on Thompson, lots of Wikipedia. By doing that, I was able to sometimes see what references in their books meant to them personally, which gives a sense of why the books are written in the manner that they are written. How much bearing that had on my actual composition is hard to quantify, but it had to have some effect different than if I had not done the biographical reading.
Q: Could you briefly describe your process for developing the mysteries written for Malinveau
Prison and The Falling Star? For example; Did you start with the mystery’s resolution and work
backwards or did you establish a crime and let the story flow from there?
A: I started with the crimes and let the mysteries unfold as they did. For Malniveau, I started with the image of a dead body found in the gutter during a downpour. I don’t think I knew who the dead body was, and I certainly had no idea who had killed him and why. It was as I wrote that the answer to the mystery came. The one thing that was different with Malniveau than the other two books was that the original draft was only about 130 pages and ended with a traditional sitting room ending where the inspector rounded up all of the characters and then explained to them what had happened. So, as a result, I did know the whole thing when I went to expand it to over twice that length. For The Falling Star, I’m not sure I had an idea beyond Clothilde’s paranoia when I started writing. The murder came as I was writing, as did the rest, and while I rewrote and rewrote, the basic structure and pacing didn’t change dramatically from draft to draft.
Q: What inspired you to write mysteries and noir genre?
A: I’ve always been a fan of mysteries and noir. I started reading mysteries with the Cam Janson easy reader series, and I was a big Scooby Doo fan, so I really mean that I was always a mystery fan. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? turned me onto noir, and my love of comic books and later classic films like Double Indemnityand The Maltese Falcon solidified my passion for the genre. But why I chose to write my own noir? That came about simply because I was reading a lot of Simenon at a time I was getting ready to write a new book, and I thought, I could write one of these, and I did, just to prove it to myself and to get myself working on something. After I wrote the Simenon-style book, and had the idea, what would a mystery series look like if the character that we follow from book to book is someone other than the detective, it made sense to continue the series in the vein of the first book, i.e. a noir pastiche/homage.
Q: How much fiction writing had you ever done prior to the stories in the Twenty-Year Death?
A: I saw Laura Lippman interview Tana French last week, and she said how jealous writers are of French since French’s first published book In the Woods was the first book French ever wrote while most writers first published book is the fifth or sixth book they have written. I fall into the fifth or sixth category. I started writing in elementary school, began to get serious around ninth grade, and started define myself as a writer by eleventh grade. I wrote my first novel junior year of college, which I have never reread and hopefully never will, and then I wrote many books, spending multiple years on some of them before starting what became The Twenty-Year Death. At least one of those books I still hope will be my next published novel, but there are a lot of books on discs who knows where or in file boxes that no one will probably ever read.
Q: Were there real life inspirations for fictional characters like Mahossier or Mandy Ehrhardt?
A: No. As some reviewers have pointed out, Mahossier owes something to Hannibal Lechter, although I’ve only seen the movies and have never read The Silence of the Lambs. He owes just as much to the Joker from Batman, but his actual crimes I made up whole cloth. Mandy is also made from whole cloth. There’s no particular murdered starlet. If anything, the description of her murdered body was influenced by the Jack the Ripper killings.
Q: Do you plan to write more mysteries for Chief Inspector Pelleter, or P.I. Foster, to solve?
A: No. The whole idea behind The Twenty-Year Death was to write a mystery series in which the detective was not the recurring character, so it would defeat the purpose to go on and use them in other books. Of course, Fleming taught us to never say never.
Q: I had read that each book was written in the style of past mystery authors(Georges Simenon,
Raymond Chandler, and Jim Thompson), could you tell me a little bit about these writers and
what challenges you may have found switching between styles?
A: I didn’t write the three books concurrently, meaning I didn’t work in Simenon’s style one day, Chandler’s the next, and then back to Simenon, so it wasn’t that difficult to switch between them. When I set out to write in a particular author’s style, I would read a little bit of that author, usually only a few sentences, rarely a full page, to get the voice of the author in my head, and then I would keep that voice in my head as I wrote. The thing I needed to do beyond that was thinking about how each writer unfolded a narrative, so when I was thinking about the next day’s writing, I had to make sure the plot movement felt right, since the structure of the different author’s novels is as different as their voices.
Q: Besides mystery and noir, are there other fiction genres you would like to try in the future?
A: Yes, although I’m not sure I will try to adhere to a specific author in those cases. The ones I have an active interest in are fantasy and horror. I like reading scifi too, but when I’ve tried scifi in the past, I’m not good at it. Even soft scifi relies on too much science for me to write with confidence. But I’m mulling over fantasy and horror.
Q: Shem Rosenkrantz seemed very fond of the “ Gin Rickey,” What is a Gin Rickey and any tips on
making a really good one?
A: I’ve never had a Gin Rickey. I chose it because it was a drink favored by F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was the loose basis for Shem Rosenkrantz. In fact, when I just went over to look it up on Wikipedia, the entry talks about a reference to the drink in The Great Gatsby. It’s gin, club soda, and lime, but I wouldn’t know how to make one.