A thick and meaty crime opus, Ariel S. Winter’s debut novel, The Twenty-Year Death (Hard Case Crime), is a moody trilogy of three interlocking crime novels, each written in the style of a writer attuned to each story’s milieu. The opening piece “Malvineau Prison,” set in a small town in 1931 France, recalls the procedurals of Georges Simenon, while its second, “The Falling Star,” is placed in 1941 Hollywood and reads like Chandler, with the third, “Police at the Funeral,” bringing us to early fifties Maryland in the voice of Jim Thompson.
It’s a tricky literary game that Winter chose, one that could easily slip into imitation for its own sake, though each part of his larger story proves distinct enough to support the shifts. To this reader’s eyes, the most successful pastiche proves its first, in part because the Belgian writer Simenon has been less appropriated in recent years than either Chandler or Thompson, but also because it so beautifully captures his unsentimental blend of stolid police procedural with a melancholy sense of the human condition.
Following the investigations of a dogged Chief Inspector named Pelleter in the village of Verargent, the mystery involves a murdered convict who appears to have escaped from the area’s prison. Pelleter’s investigation brings him into contact with a sadistic pedophile serial killer from his past and the victim’s sadly beautiful daughter Clotilde, who is married to an American writer named Shem Rosencrantz.
Without giving too much away — part of the pleasure of this book lies in seeing just how Winter ties together his three separate crime fic plots — Shem shows up as the unreliable alcoholic narrator/protagonist of the book’s final third.