The Twenty-Year Death channels the spirits of Georges Simenon, Belgian author of the Inspector Maigret series set in France; Raymond Chandler, flag holder for the cadre of writers of hard-boiled, private eye fiction of the 1940s; and Jim Thompson, gonzo noir writer whose greatest books were written in the 1950s and early 60s. Winter's book is divided into three sections, each taking on the aesthetic of one of the writers. It is mainly the characters of writer Shem Rosencrantz and his wife, Clothilde, who appear in all the stories, although a minor character might slip through or suddenly inflate to supporting actor status in the next story.
Winter recently stopped by Murder by the Book to talk about his writing.
Why did he choose the mystery genre? Winter said that he has always read mysteries, leaning heavily on the classics (Cain, Woolrich, Willeford). His wife and mother are the big contemporary series fans in the family. (His wife emphatically confirmed this later.) Although writers are often adjured to write what they know, it is not so much what Winter knows from his own life but what he has learned from reading that informed his project.
Not only is Winter a reader but he has been a bookseller, specializing in children's books. In fact, his first published book is a children's picture book, "One of a Kind." He laments the push to early literacy, because it bypasses the picture book stage. He notices that fewer picture books are being published, and certainly fewer by unknown authors.
Winter's blog ("We Too Were Children, Mr. Barrie") examines children's books written by authors known primarily for their books for adults, e.g., Patricia Highsmith and Gertrude Stein. Now Mr. Winter is one of those happy few, a writer for grown-ups who has a children's book notched on his pen.
Not surprisingly, Winter is also a comic book fan because it, too, "marries words and pictures," like picture books.
Did the unusual format for Twenty-Year Death spring fully formed from his brow? It was a short story, hidden among a set of novellas, that caught the eye of Hard Case Crime editor Charles Ardai and eventually became the first part of The Twenty-Year Death. At that point, there wasn't a solid thought about creating the three-story span.
After deciding on the structure with Ardai's help, Winter spent time savoring the flavor of each author but not immersing himself to the point of producing parody, pastiche, or cliché. "I wanted me in it, too" he said. He borrowed mostly from each author's "ambiance, tone and feel."
He especially didn't want to excessively mimic Chandler. (Chandler himself, Winter noted, kept a list of his "Chandlerisms" – witty similes – so he wouldn't repeat or parody himself.) What he kept of Chandler's "feel" was of private eye Philip Marlowe's "strong sense of honor" and used that for his own private eye, Dennis Foster.
What he took from Thompson was the attitude that the main character always thinks "it's someone else's fault" if bad things happen. Winter said, "I'm always interested in the untrustworthy narrator." Indeed, it is Rosencrantz, dissolute and self-centered, who is the first-person narrator of the final Thompson-like section ("Police at the Funeral").
Winter had F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway in mind when he created the character of Rosencrantz, especially during the first book in which he appears as a famous author living in France ("Malniveau Prison," inspired by Simenon). Later, it was Fitzgerald's wife, Zelda, who inspired the broken figure that Clothilde, Rosencrantz's wife, becomes ("The Falling Star," inspired by Chandler).
Did he have to pause between novels to reset his style? No, he said, because he did several drafts of each section and that made it easier to accommodate whatever "ambiance" he was after.
Was he influenced by various movie portrayals of Marlowe (Bogart, Mitchum). No. When reading Chandler's books, Marlowe's character fully "stands on his own," he said.
What inspired Winter to experiment with his writing in this fashion? He is a big fan of David Mitchell's novel, Cloud Atlas, currently making news for the movie that is about to be released. Mitchell, too, uses different styles and voices to tell several stories, all with connecting threads to each other. Tana French, an Irish writer, fascinates Winter with how she uses different but related characters and slightly varied storytelling approaches to create a loosely-defined series.
Winter has struggled through several tour appearances and interviews with how to define his overall intent. "If Matisse, Chagall, and Picasso painted a bowl of fruit, they'd all be different expressions," he began. "Then extrapolate the pictures and what do they say" all together about the bowl of fruit? "The conceit is that Rosencrantz is a person drawn by different writers," he explained. What total picture does the reader receive when all the portraits are put together? The whole should exceed the sum of its parts.
In the end, he says, the unifying and underlying element is the story of a family, about loss, grief, and regret.
What would he like to do next? Another novel and another children's book -- a picture book, of course. A comic mini-series would be nice as well.
What does he see for the future of books and bookstores? Children's picture books are in trouble, as he noted before. Prose fiction and comics should be fine. Bookstores? "I hope people will figure out how much they lose by not having a bookseller," he said.