Well, here’s a hell of thing.
Ariel S. Winter and Hard Case Crime have really cranked out something special in Winter’s The Twenty-Year Death, a spectacular endeavor that combines three separate novels—and three distinct voices—to tell a story that spans three decades. There’s more. Each of the novels is told in the style of a famous novelist whose novels are identified with each of those decades of 20th century crime fiction. The first, Malniveau Prison (set in 1931), is told in the style of early pulp novelist Georges Simenon, who created the famous police detective Commissaire Maigret. The second, The Falling Star (set in 1941), is told in the hardboiled style of Raymond Chandler and in a very similar voice to that of Philip Marlowe. The third, Police at the Funeral (set in 1951), is told in the gruff, sociopathic style of Jim Thompson. The greatest compliment I can pay this incredible work is that it does indeed feel as if we’ve discovered lost novels from each writer—except that it goes even further than that in its ambitions.
The Twenty-Year Death tells the story of American author Shem Rosencrantz and his French wife Clothilde, and as we move from novel to novel, their story becomes an increasing focus. In Malniveau Prison, for example, the couple are rarely more than secondary characters in the story of Chief Inspector Pelleter, who finds himself in the middle of a crime spree when he visits the French burg of Verargent. An escaped Malniveau prisoner is found dead in the gutter in front of a baker, and in the face of an unhelpful Assistant Warden Elogieux and the evil machinations of incarcerated child murderer Mahossier, Pelleter must use his expert deductive reasoning to solve the case. Here’s where we meet Rosencrantz and his beautiful young wife—Clothilde just happens to be the dead prisoner’s daughter. What could these two possibly have to do with the murder? Or are they in more danger than anyone realizes?
In Falling Star, Rosencrantz and Clothilde—now Chloe Rose, having moved to Hollywood to become a rising starlet—are pushed further into the spotlight. Private dick Dennis Foster is charged with keeping an eye on Chloe, who feels as if she’s being followed by a malicious stalker. But Foster gets the gut feeling that there’s more to this case, and he’s soon drawn into a paranoid underworld of drugs and murder. Meanwhile, Rosencrantz—who will become the central protagonist of The Twenty-Year Death—is falling from grace, succumbing to drink and dames. We learn of the twisted Hollywood and “San Angelo” web of liars and bastards that are behind the gradual destruction of both characters. But it’s Rosencrantz who’s destroying Chloe, the love of his life, in ways that will reverberate for years, and forward into the final novel of the three.
It’s in Police at the Funeral that Rosencrantz comes into full focus, as The Twenty-Year Death shifts into first-person perspective from Shem’s point of view. He narrates his own tale of woe and heartbreak and desperation. Rosencrantz needs money to pay for Chloe’s care at a high-priced sanitarium back in San Angelo, and he’s back on his home turf of Calvert City, Maryland, in the hopes that his recently deceased first wife, Quinn, might have included something for him in her will. No such luck. So with the help of his conniving whore of a girlfriend, Vee, he will try to find a way to squeeze some dough out of his estranged son. Soon, violence escalates into a horrible accident, and evidence points squarely in Rosencrantz’s direction. He gets deeper and deeper into potential trouble with all manner of lowlifes—all in the interest of saving his one true love, Clothilde, institutionalized and emotionally scarred, three thousand miles away.
The Twenty-Year Death is a stunning work, and its effect intensifies even after you’re finished. You look back on what you’ve read with a growing sense that, even as it has provided three excellent short mystery novels, it has also been far more than the sum of its parts. You might even be convinced to read the whole thing again, immediately, to see how the doomed, romantic saga of Rosencrantz and Clothilde began and progressed. Because there’s a power to their story that is more potent in retrospect than in the experience of reading The Twenty-Year Death. It’s most evident when you consider the work as a whole than from chapter to chapter.
I’ve mentioned this, but it bears repeating: Ariel S. Winter has hewed very close to the narrative style of three very distinct crime writers, giving the impression that you’re actually reading lost novels. The reading of them feels like an act of literary archaeology. Simenon’s longer, studied chapters and prose give way to the shorter, clipped gumshoe narration of Chandler, which gives way to the drunken stream-of-consciousness sociopathy of Jim Thompson. And yet all the while, you’re reading Ariel S. Winter. I don’t believe I’ve ever used the term tour de force in a fiction review, but there’s a first for everything. This effort reaches those heights.
And if you’re thinking that The Twenty-Year Death merely sounds like a gimmick, it’s far from that. The reason I’m left feeling a sort of envious awe is that Winter accomplishes his literary feat while managing to tell three separate and riveting original crime novels. Three complex crime plots with splendid resolutions, expertly weaved while being pitch-perfect nostalgic. Three narratives with strong characters and voices, firmly embedded in their time and place. One masterwork that brings everything together into a magnum opus that’s certainly one of the strongest debut works I’ve ever seen but is also one of the greatest crime novels in my collection.
If I had one (minor) nitpick about The Twenty-Year Death, it would be that—in retrospect—I wanted to have learned more about Rosencrantz and Clothilde. It’s not until the final book that Shem’s story really comes into sharp focus. But I can’t help but feel that such a direction would have come at the expense of the other two novels’ existing narrators and their exquisite tales. This book is a delicate balancing act, but Winter manages to keep everything perfectly steady and dizzyingly confident.
I give this literary feat my highest possible recommendation. I offer a deep, heartfelt tip of the hat to this tip-of-the-hat literary piece of magic from Hard Case Crime, and you can bet I’ll be watching Ariel S. Winter’s career very carefully. Bravo!