2012 Book Reviews
Let’s not pull any punches. Silhouettes are boring, stuffy pieces of artwork. The only places you can usually find them are in the homes of older affluent folks, or those trying desperately to project the air of wealth. However, once you discover Silhouettes from Popular Culture by artist Olly Moss, you’ll never look at the medium the same way again. That’s because Moss’s debut hardcover is a game-changer for this type of art.
Instead of featuring nameless subjects or dry historical figures, Moss mines our favorite movies, television shows, and yes even video games from the last 50 years for silhouette fodder. To reveal who he gives the treatment to would spoil the thrill of seeing it yourself, although pop culture gurus should be delighted by the variety offered up in this book. Moss doesn’t hesitate to get obscure with his references, something that only adds to the hilarity of his concept.
What makes this hardcover unique isn’t just that Moss borrows characters from popular culture; it’s the way he playfully arranges them by using both pages to tell a story. Sometimes the silhouettes on opposing pages are characters from the same piece, other times they are different ones played by a single actor, and in select instances they can be different versions of the same character portrayed by different actors. These characters can be interacting directly or indirectly based on their placement. At certain points they’re facing one another, in others they’re facing away, and in a few spots, they are lined up going the same direction.
When necessary to create context, Moss adds his own clever design flourishes to the silhouettes like small splashes of color. There’s plenty of range to entertain you and a very sleek old-time look and feel to the book. The cover is made of a blue textured fabric, with gold etching for the title, and a raised silhouette that feels like it was hand-cut and pasted on.
Silhouettes from Popular Culture is brimming with cool pictures to keep you engaged, but it’s much more than just a typical coffee table book. Moss combines old-fashioned aesthetics with a postmodern sense of humor to create an experience that’s incredibly fun and interactive.
His book is a mind puzzle like a Rubik’s Cube, except infinitely less frustrating and easier for friends to play with at the same time. Even if you’re well-versed in pop culture it’s still tough to guess every single silhouette right. When you find ones that you don’t know immediately, it’s actually more stimulating because it gets you to use your powers of your imagination in order to figure out who it is.
The only slightly annoying thing about Silhouettes from Popular Culture is that there’s no answer key. But understandably, Moss is hoping for re-read value. He knows you’ll keep coming back after you absorb new movies, television, and video games to try to fill in the blanks. He definitely has me hooked.
Silhouettes from Popular Culture is available in stores and online at www.titanbooks.com.
Back in May, Kim Newman’s novel Anno Dracula: The Bloody Red Baron, hooked me with its engaging blend of real life figures and fictional characters, as well as its fast-paced espionage and intrigue. Based on that, I was excited to read his follow-up book, Dracula Cha Cha Cha, because I anticipated another exhilarating adventure in his alternate reality where humans and vampires coexist. Unfortunately for me and my expectations, Cha Cha Cha fails to measure up to the high standards set by its predecessor.
Dracula Cha Cha Cha takes place roughly 40 years after the events of The Bloody Red Baron. Following World War II in this universe, Count Dracula slipped into relative obscurity, secluding himself in a castle near Rome. Now in 1959, Dracula plots to marry Moldavian princess to return himself to a seat of power as Lord of the Undead. Meanwhile, journalist Kate Reed arrives in Rome to visit her ailing friend Charles Beauregard, a retired spy who lives with his vampire companion Geneviève. Along with the undead British secret agent Hamish Bond, Kate and Geneviève become wrapped up in a whodunit involving the Crimson Executioner, a serial killer brutally murdering vampire elders in the city.
At first, the murders perpetrated by the Crimson Executioner seem to be straightforward crimes, however as Kate begins to uncover more information, she discovers bizarre supernatural forces running the show. These powers manipulating the Crimson Executioner are interesting, although they are not well-explained, which is disappointing. Another source of annoyance is the abundance of Italian words and phrases featured in the book. Since the tale is set in Rome, Newman incorporates a lot of Italian into the vernacular of his characters. He logically uses it as an opportunity to enrich his story, however it creates disconnect with the readers who aren’t familiar with the language.
As you might expect, Hamish Bond is an unimaginative vampire version of James Bond, but Newman at least has other amusing characters in Dracula Cha Cha Cha. A personal favorite is his use of actor Orson Welles as someone who dabbles in magic and mysticism. Welles serves as an information source and has a particularly humorous rendezvous with Kate and Geneviève. Speaking of Geneviève, it’s nice to get to know her better since she was only mentioned in passing during The Bloody Red Baron. She was featured in the novella included with that book, Vampire Romance, though she didn’t have long to connect with the reader.
Like The Bloody Red Baron, the latest edition of Dracula Cha Cha Cha also contains a novella by Newman, set after the events of the primary story. This tale, Aquarius, takes place in the swinging 60s and features Kate Reed again. In London, two party girls are discovered dead and drained of all their blood. As Kate investigates, she goes head-to-head with an old foe. This investigation is ultimately more engaging than the one in Cha Cha Cha, but isn’t as fun as Vampire Romance.
Dracula Cha Cha Cha and Aquarius are mildly entertaining supernatural murder mysteries, but unfortunately they don’t possess the same swiftly moving narrative as their predecessors. Despite their shorter length, they aren’t nearly as gripping because the characters have much more depressing inner monologue. The vampires often reflect on old age and mortality, philosophically questioning the concepts. This doesn’t make for as compelling of a story, since it hits too close to real life to be the escapism you want.
Dracula Cha Cha Cha is available now in stores and online at www.titanbooks.com.
Anderson’s mashup of historical and science fiction operates under the premise that the famous H.G. Wells tale of interplanetary conflict, didn’t just spring from the author’s imagination; it was inspired by his actual contact with a hostile Martian race. Using a combination of real individuals like Wells, T.H. Huxley, and Percival Lowell, as well as fictional ones like Wells character Dr. Moreau, Anderson crafts a thrilling old-fashioned science fiction adventure.
To convince you of the alternate reality that he has crafted, Anderson heavily borrows biographical details from the lives of Wells, Huxley, and Lowell to flesh out their characters. Wells especially, tends to be very introspective, often reflecting on his low income upbringing, his failed first marriage to his cousin, and reasons for the success of his relationship with former student Jane. Huxley is characterized by Wells for his firm support of Darwin, his intense passion for science, and his youthful curiosity. Lowell’s obsession with astronomy, wealthy background, and intense drive are viewed through the lens of vivisectionist Dr. Moreau, who describes his adventures with the Boston industrialist.
The Martian War is successfully split into two alternating narratives. The first is the diary of Dr. Moreau, which recounts how the doctor partnered with Percival Lowell to attract Martian visitors to Earth and to study them once they arrived. This journal describes the trials and tribulations that the pair experience once they get their wish and encounter extraterrestrial life. The second story follows Wells, Jane, and Huxley on a wild ride that carries them from Earth to the Moon and then to Mars itself, where they must stop with the Martians from invading our planet.
Both narratives are weaved together quite effectively, but Anderson really hits his stride toward the middle of the book, after Wells, Jane, and Huxley acquire Moreau’s diary. They take breaks to read the book, transporting you back in time and placing you in Moreau’s shoes. For them and for us as the readers, the journal helps provide valuable information on the physical properties, as well as the motives of these alien life forms. Wells, Jane, and Huxley are able to use this intelligence to their advantage when dealing with their foes.
The pacing and the flow of Anderson’s novel are spot on, although where the author truly excels in this piece, is his recreation of the late 1890s historical era in his style of writing. Anderson effortlessly mimics the colorful imagination of science fiction novelists like H.G. Wells and Jules Verne through his descriptions of alien species. He also forms vivid depictions of turn-of-the-century technology that sound believable for the time. As a result, his tale comes off as very convincing.
If you’re a big fan of Anderson as a writer, or if you just like old school sci-fi books in the vein of Wells and Verne, then you should definitely read The Martian War.
The Martian War is currently available in stores and online at www.titanbooks.com.
Do you expect me to talk?
No Mr. Bond, I expect you to read!
I’m not a hardcore fan by any means, but I’m very familiar with British secret agent James Bond. I love movies and video games featuring the titular character for the same reasons most people do: they have exotic locations, expensive cars, cool gadgets, sexy women, maniacal villains, and plenty of action. Despite their formulaic nature, these tales still manage to please us because they unapologetically embrace these dependable staples. Fortunately Jim Lawrence and Yaroslav Horak’s Bond comics in The James Bond Omnibus 004 operate the exact same way. They work within the established formula to create entertaining Bond adventures that feel right at home in the hero’s mythology.
Somehow I had never heard of Lawrence and Horak’s Bond 1970s comic series until Titan Books recently sent me a copy of Omnibus 004. I wish I had discovered the comics sooner though, because Lawrence’s writing and Horak’s artwork work very effectively together to tell engrossing, Bond stories.
Similar to the Bond films, these missions have droll names such as “Trouble Spot,” “Die with My Boots On,” “The Girl Machine,” and “The Phoenix Project.” Bond travels to interesting places and gets himself into dangerous situations, but in classic fashion, he always beats the bad guy, usually right after the villain stupidly spills all of his plans for world domination. Then Bond gets the girl.
Lawrence writes Bond in the vein of Sean Connery’s version of the character. Bond is a misogynist who patronizingly refers to all women as “luv” and frequently asks them to stay out of the way. It’s a good thing they don’t listen, since they often end up saving him from danger. He might not acknowledge it, but the women in these operations are very much equal partners in trying to accomplish the endgame. Whether it’s intended or not there are definite feminist undertones in the series.
In addition to being a chick magnet Lawrence’s Bond also has the trademark Bond sense of humor. He makes puns after killing henchmen, like a moment after he forces some off a cliff, and has a comment about them “taking the plunge.” His female counterpart is exasperated by his morbid joke, though not for very long. Bond also uses an alias to be sneaky, something I don’t remember him doing before. In several of the comics he refers to himself as Mark Hazard, a phony name that the bad guys see through very quickly. Then it’s back to “Bond, James Bond.”
One of the most fascinating parts about these comics is Bond’s partnership with black allies. These characters may have silly stereotypical names like Crystal Kelly and Smoky Turpin, but don’t be fooled. These black characters, like the female ones, are equals with Bond in helping to take out the bad guys, something that would have been pretty progressive at the time these comics were being written.
Lawrence isn’t the only one worthy of praise, Horak deserves kudos too for his distinct artwork. Strangely Bond looks the most like George Lazenby, who only played the character once. Though Horak’s version an impressive medley of Connery and all the Bonds after aside from Daniel Craig. Horak’s black and white drawings prevent the violence in these Bond tales from becoming overwhelming and allow him to show more skin than the films do. His visual style bears a retro flair that looks dated but feels like classic Bond.
If you love all things James Bond, you should check out The James Bond Omnibus 004. Even if you’re not familiar with the character though, you can still have fun if you dig comics. Inside this volume you’ll find a collection of enjoyable, easy-to-read comics which fit appropriately into Bond canon.
The James Bond Omnibus 004 is available now in stores and online at www.titanbooks.com.
A small shelf or coffee table simply won’t do if you want to own Jaws: Memories from Martha’s Vineyard by Matt Taylor. Whatever you prefer, you’re gonna need a bigger one to hold this book. The behemoth behind the scenes volume is so meaty Jaws himself would have trouble sinking his teeth all the way into it.
The first reason he would struggle is the book’s size (11.9″ x 10.5″) and weight (4.67 lbs). At almost 5 pounds, it’s one heavy duty book! Secondly, there are over 300 sprawling pages with the most comprehensive making of account you’ll find available about Steven Spielberg’s famous film. Memories from Martha’s Vineyard delves deeper than any DVD commentary or behind the scenes documentary could possibly go, sharing hours of interviews and a wealth of amateur and professional photos depicting the people, places, and props that brought the movie to life.
Starting with the location scouting that led filmmakers to the New England island of Martha’s Vineyard, this book intricately documents the movie’s entire production process from start to finish. There’s an unexpected but brief foreword by Steven Spielberg as well as interviews with production designer Joe Alves, screenwriter Carl Gottlieb, and casting director Shari Rhodes. Although the real stars of Memories from Martha’s Vineyard are the island’s working-class natives who got acting roles in “Jaws,” helped construct the sets, and assisted the crew with day-to-day affairs.
Because he’s a resident of the area, Taylor is able to give you a true insider’s glimpse into the quirks of these unique New Englanders and the subtleties of their culture. His familiarity with the location is a big reason why he got such great candid remarks for this book. People there clearly trust him to do the subject justice.
Perhaps the most fascinating element that Taylor explores about his native island is the complexity of its politics. For instance, using several angles, he vividly recounts a frustrating tiff between local leaders and the film crew about a building being constructed as a set. Protective politicians almost caused production to grind to a complete halt because the temporary structure was not in keeping with rigorous zoning regulations. Thankfully due to finesse and assistance from the right stakeholders, everything was eventually resolved.
Jaws: Memories from Martha’s Vineyard is truly a fantastic read for anyone rabidly obsessed with Steven Spielberg’s epic movie, and for film buffs in general. This gorgeous book has enough cool photos and fascinating anecdotes to keep you occupied for hours.
Its only real detriment is its massive size and weight, which makes it incredibly difficult to read for more than a few minutes at a time. It’s too heavy to hold in your hands for long and it’s not something you can read laying down in bed. It’s a shame that it doesn’t lend itself to being explored cover to cover because the content absolutely makes you want to do that. So you’ll just have to ration your reading, taking just a few pages at a time, because there’s no way the publisher Titan Books could make it any smaller without sacrificing the quality of this volume.
Jaws: Memories from Martha’s Vineyard is available now in stores and online at www.titanbooks.com.
Death is one of the few things that can keep a good author down. But not James M. Cain. His pulp novel The Cocktail Waitress arrives this month, 35 years after his passing. Unlike other mediocre posthumous literary works though, Cain’s novel is actually a gripping read. That’s because the book’s editor, Charles Adai, spent nearly a decade tracking down the multiple Cain manuscripts and exhaustive notes he used to assemble The Cocktail Waitress.
Cain’s book follows Joan Medford, a beautiful young widow, whose husband dies under dubious circumstances. Desperate to pay the bills after his death, Joan takes on work a waitress in a cocktail lounge, where she meets two new men: a whimsical, handsome young man she falls for and a prosperous older one that she decides to marry. The remainder of novel focuses on the subsequent drama that comes from Joan’s conflicting loyalties for the two suitors.
Adai, founder of the Hard Case Crime label for Titan Books, employs shrewd judgment when reconstructing Cain’s narrative. As he discusses in his engaging and informative afterword, Adai merges what he deems to be all the best character arcs and scenes from Cain’s original materials to complete the novel. The result is a compelling final Cain mystery involving his familiar topics of sex, drugs, and murder.
Despite the obvious attention-grabbing nature of these sordid themes, the most persuasive aspect about Cain’s noir crime novel is its unique voice. Not only is The Cocktail Waitress told from a woman’s first-person perspective, an extreme rarity in itself for the genre, but the central character is actually the story’s femme fatale. Usually the femme fatale is just an object of desire that gets our hardboiled protagonist into trouble. She doesn’t normally speak to us and she certainly isn’t aware of that term.
What makes Cain’s main character, Joan Medford, astonishingly intricate is that she openly acknowledges accusations of being a femme fatale and rebuffs them. Her tale is narrated as if she was tape recording her side of the events for posterity. In her testimony, she’s honest about the serious evidence implicating her in murder and her inability to completely exonerate herself. So she does the best that she can with her word, “All I know to do is tell it and tell it all, including some things no woman would willingly tell. I don’t look forward to it, but if that’s how it has to be, it’s how it has to be.”
Although Cain never gives you a reason to doubt the validity of Joan’s account, Adai brings up a good point in his afterword about her reliability as a narrator. Because hers is the only perspective that you read, there’s a very good chance that she’s either lying or not telling the whole truth about everything that happened. Whether she is or not, is something that you’ll ponder long after you finish the book.
Cain’s final work enjoyable read, however it’s not entirely without shortcomings. There are a few moments when Joan is speaking that it’s obvious that a man is writing her words. One instance occurs when she’s getting dressed and describing what she looks like naked to the reader, something a true female narrator wouldn’t likely do. Another weak point is the novel’s ending, something Adai admits Cain was dissatisfied with and trying to rework when he died. The resolution feels predictable and a touch anticlimactic. But at least Stephen King’s praise on the jacket is accurate this time though, “A true rarity: a reader’s novel that’s also a literary event.” Way to go Uncle Stevie!
The Cocktail Waitress is available now in stores and online at www.titanbooks.com.
I was at a critical disadvantage when I started Sherlock Holmes – The Army of Dr Moreau by Guy Adams. That’s because I never read any of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories or the H.G. Wells tale The Island of Doctor Moreau. So I knew that I couldn’t critique Adams’ versions of the characters in relation to the originals.
Despite my inexperience with Doyle and Wells, popular culture had already given me enough background on Sherlock Holmes, and the crappy 1996 movie The Island of Dr. Moreau acquainted me with Dr. Moreau. While a general understanding of Holmes as a character was necessary for me to get into this novel, prior knowledge about Moreau was not since Adams provides adequate back story. Seeing Moreau’s hideous creations in the Marlon Brando/Val Kilmer flick did help me better visualize their physical appearance as I was reading though.
The mystery at the heart of this Guy Adams novel leans more toward the horror genre than typical Sherlock Holmes cases. Mutilated bodies are turning up in London with wounds clearly caused by ferocious exotic animals. Sherlock Holmes is visited by his brother Mycroft, who is certain that the murders are the calling card of the deranged Dr Moreau, a biologist who was employed by the British Government. Moreau expanded on the work of Charles Darwin, before his grotesque experiments were halted for attracting negative publicity. Mycroft thinks that Moreau’s research has resumed and charges his brother with tracking down the rogue scientist before the situation grows out of control.
Just like Doyle’s Holmes adventures, Adams sets up The Army of Dr Moreau as story within a story. Holmes’ trusty partner Watson acts as the narrator, talking to the reader while he uses his notes to recount the events of the case. In this way, Adams gives his book a humorous Meta quality. One of the novel’s funniest scenes involves Watson’s visit to his editor at The Strand, the real magazine which published Doyle’s Holmes stories. It’s easy to chuckle at this self-aware tale, when the editor cleverly remarks “Some people just can’t help but blur the lines between fiction and reality.”
Similar to its portrayal in the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes films, the relationship between Holmes and Watson in The Army of Dr Moreau is fraught by Holmes’ predilection for leaving his partner in the dark. Adams provides entertaining depth to their delicate relationship as Watson openly vents about his frustrations. Sometimes he’s playful like when says to Holmes “You are quite the most irritating man I know,” but in other moments Watson is deadly serious “In all honesty I felt like leaving Baker Street just as I had those few years ago, not to take up a new life as had been the case then, but simply to eradicate the irritations of the current one.”
One great trick Adams uses to keep the narrative interesting is to allow other characters like Sherlock and Mycroft to take over narration after Watson is kidnapped by the villain. As a result, the final conflict is much more exciting because you get to experience it from all of the angles and players involved in the master plan.
Although The Army of Dr Moreau is a riveting mystery, surprisingly it’s not all action and fluff. Given Moreau’s heinous experiments on animals as a vivisectionist, the characters raise important ethical and moral questions about the doctor’s work like when Holmes asks “Is man wrong to interfere in the passage of so-called natural law or is he simply exhibiting the intelligent dominance the proves the validity of the law?” Statements like that will leave you thinking long after you finish this book.
Sherlock Holmes – The Army of Dr Moreau is available now in stores and online at www.titanbooks.com.
When Titan Books offered to send me a copy of Lenore: Swirlies, my initial reaction was genuine surprise. I was shocked to finally encounter something zombie-related that I never heard of before. As a rabid enthusiast of all things undead I’m usually well-versed in genre films and literature, yet somehow Roman Dirge’s Lenore series had escaped me. So I decided to take the plunge and read Swirlies, and I’m thankful that I did, because it’s hilarious.
For the uninitiated, Lenore is an undead comic book character created by artist Roman Dirge and named after the titular woman from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.” Lenore doesn’t hunger for human flesh though. She lives in a town called Nevermore (also borrowed from Poe), where she tries to combat youthful boredom with her adorable pal Ragamuffin and her masked friend Pooty.
The title for Swirlies, Dirge’s fourth Lenore installment, comes from Dirge’s penchant for naming his volumes after childhood afflictions. Other Lenore books include Noogies, Wedgies, and Cooties. The author playfully admits though, that he may be running out of words in that category to use for book titles.
In the introduction to Swirlies, Dirge refers to his Lenore adventures as a “carnival of madness,” which a rather apt description for his zany storylines. With quirky humor slightly reminiscent of Tim Burton’s films, Dirge’s heroine and her pals face bizarre problems like a time-traveling cyborg mortician, a creepy stalker, and alimony payments. Although her experience might be outlandish, Lenore is entertaining as a character because she has the naivety and mischievous nature of a child mixed with the teenage sarcastic cynicism of Lydia from Beetlejuice.
Lenore’s tales are interspersed with other short comics starring Dirge himself, which are called “Things Involving Me.” He uses these shorts as opportunities to connect with the reader by recounting amusing anecdotes from his life. One particularly funny moment involves an instance where he was mistaken for a vampire. These autobiographical strips are good for a chuckle, but they also provide a much needed change of pace.
Dirge’s dark sense of humor works most of the time, even when he’s making heavy-handed pop culture references to films like Aliens and The Crow. However it does get a bit too morbid for me at points and it’s certainly not for everyone. Regardless of what you think of his jokes though, the artwork in Dirge’s book is breathtaking. Landscapes and characters are beautifully drawn and inked. You can tell a lot of love and labor went into them, especially the covers for each Lenore section. The art’s quality is reinforced by an old-fashioned hardcover binding and shade of green.
Stylistically the appearance of Dirge’s characters reminded me of the show Invader Zim, which made sense once I found out that Dirge wrote for the show and published on the same comic label as its creator Jhonen Vasquez. My hunch is that fans of the program would get a kick out of this series if they don’t know about it already.
If you like bizarre dark comedy, talking reanimated corpses, and comics that don’t take themselves too seriously, then you’ll probably enjoy Lenore: Swirlies. It’s a quick read that got me to laugh out loud several times and has me interested and reading Dirge’s previous volumes.
Lenore: Swirlies is available now in stores and online at www.titanbooks.com.
I may have criticized Tim Lebbon’s literary adaption of The Cabin in the Woods for adding relatively little to the film’s experience, but I felt quite differently after devouring Greg Cox’s official novelization of The Dark Knight Rises. Not only did I revisit the events of the movie with exceptional clarity, I also came into contact with characters that I never had time to meet during Christopher Nolan’s epic movie.
Given the dexterity with which Cox converts Nolan’s screenplay to the page, it’s not surprising that the author is well-known for transferring numerous other film and television properties into novels. Cox’s frantic, vivid prose is a perfect match for Nolan’s intense Batman story. Right from the opening scene on the airplane, Cox sucks you into the action with his frightening descriptions of this high altitude interrogation and heist. I couldn’t stop reading, especially when I came across brutal passages like “He threw open the cargo door. Cold air invaded the cabin as the wind outside howled like a soul in torment.”
In the film, The Dark Knight Rises, director Christopher Nolan and actor Tom Hardy work very hard to make the villain Bane into a cruel, vile bastard. As a result, whenever Hardy is on screen as Bane, he is a physically imposing and incredibly intimidating bad guy. Somehow though, Cox manages to make Bane even more menacing in the book with his graphic descriptions of Bane’s atrocities, “Despite his muscular frame, Bane moved with the speed and ferocity of a wild animal. Bones shattered beneath his expert blows. Ribs cracked, shins and knees and collars snapped. Blood spurted. The guards never had a chance.”
Perhaps the most entertaining part of Cox’s novelization is the personality that he provides to nameless characters from the film. Instead of being mindless drones, Bane’s henchmen are living, breathing, thinking humans with names like McGarrity and Petrov. When you start to understand that their unflinching loyalty to Bane is derived more out of fear than respect, they start to become a bit more sympathetic. Their concerned inner monologue during the movie’s stock market robbery and ensuing motorcycle chase also dials up the anxiety during Batman’s pursuit.
If you can’t wait until the DVD comes out to revisit The Dark Knight Rises or even if you just don’t want to spend over 10 dollars to see it again in the theater, Greg Cox’s novelization is an engaging, cost-conscious way to relive the gripping conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Cox doesn’t merely do justice to adapting the film; he seizes the opportunity to enhance its story with colorful language and additional characters.
The Dark Knight Rises novelization is available in stores and online at www.titanbooks.com.
I’m a city reader, so I don’t bother with dust jackets. No sense accidentally ripping them just because I’m bouncing around on public transit. After I finish a book and replace the jacket though, I tend to notice things that I missed the first time. My second examination of Ariel S. Winter’s debut novel The Twenty Year Death went much the same way.
Once I put the jacket back on, I discovered a quote from Stephen King, lauding the book as “Bold, innovative, and thrilling.” At that point, I started to suspect that someone could be ghostwriting generic quotes for Uncle Stevie. Normally I trust King’s opinion on books and movies (we both love AC/DC, James Ellroy, and The Evil Dead), so it doesn’t seem right that he would endorse The Twenty Year Death. That’s because I don’t recall the novel matching his description. Instead I remember it as safe, unimaginative, and only mildly exciting.
It’s a shame too, because the narrative for The Twenty Year Death is built on a really slick concept. Winter’s book tells the tragic tale of a married couple, whose lives are fraught by death and disaster, in the form of three separate novels. The stories, which span a twenty year period from 1931-1951, each take place in a different decade and are written in a style inspired by giants of the pulp mystery genre.
Using Georges Simenon, Raymond Chandler, and Jim Thompson as his muses, Winter writes each novel as a self-contained piece with distinct detectives, plot, and resolutions. They are tied together by a writer and his wife, who move from background figures in the first narrative to take on more important roles in the second, and by the third they have become main characters.
Winter’s heart is definitely in the right place. The idea to write a book in the style of Simenon, Chandler, and Thompson sounds like a fantastic homage; it’s just Winter’s execution that’s lacking. I can easily look past the obvious structure of his three stories, since pulp novels, especially detective ones, are known for following a well-traveled formula. However, pulp fiction is usually entertaining for its complex mysteries and colorful characters, both of which are missing in The Twenty Year Death.
Each tale’s prose is as annoyingly simplistic as the mystery the detective is unraveling. By the time you finally find out whodunit, you’re never terribly surprised or satisfied at the resolution. I’ve read enough detective fiction to know that there are almost never happy endings, but the conclusions of the first and second stories are especially deficient in closure. And the frustrating thing about finale of the third yarn is that it seems to overcompensate with its intense finality.
Normally without a complicated plot, vivid characters would be there to pick up the slack. Although almost none of them are all that interesting or sympathetic in The Twenty Year Death. Strangely the only character that I enjoyed was Dennis Foster, the private eye featured in Winter’s second tale “The Falling Star.” Foster is a detective in the vein of Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, a true anti-hero who knows how crack wise and make the hard choices necessary to solve a crime.
Winter’s debut looks like an old pulp novel with its “Hard Case Crime” label and its epic painting of a femme fatale modeled after actress Rose McGowan. Unfortunately though, the book’s innards don’t live up to the hype or the work of the authors who inspired it.
The Twenty Year Death is available in stores and online at www.titanbooks.com.