I’ve read trilogies that had five books (Douglas Adams) but I’ve never heard of a debut novel that was, in fact, three complete novels. To be fair, Ariel Winter did --well, write isn’t completely correct--publish a picture book. For children. And he has written short stories. For Elle, The Urbanite, and McSweeney’s.
Hardly the background you’d expect for a crime novelist, though in his former life as a bookseller, he no doubt read some crime fiction. But to decide to write your debut novel, that is in fact three novels, in a genre you have never previously published anything in, takes an audacious author. And since he decided to tackle such a task, why not really go out on a limb and write these three novels in the style of three giants of the genre? Or three subgenres of the genre.
That is exactly what Ariel S. Winter did with The Twenty-Year Death. First he tackles Georges Simenon, an author probably more important in Europe than America, but a seminal author of the crime fiction genre. His Commissaire (Jules) Maigret novels and short stories were a kind of bridge between the ‘cozy’ detective stories, where the crime was solved through deductive reasoning, and the police procedural, where the crime was solved through hard work and the collecting of evidence. Maigret appeared in Seventy-five novels and twenty-eight short stories between 1931 and 1972.
The first novel in The Twenty-Year Death is Malniveau Prison and, fittingly, Winter has modeled his Chief Inspector Pelleter on Maigret. Maigret, like Sherlock Holmes, was known for his pipes. With Pelleter, it is his ever-present cigars. Both policemen employ a mixed bag approach to detecting, at times relying on pure intuition, at other times on police methodology. A certain laconic manner is also present in both detectives, as is the penchant for mentoring and encouraging underlings. Both also have a fondness for beer and wine, although Maigret is more of the heavier drinker. I think it is no coincidence that “Malniveau Prison” takes place in 1931, the same year that the first Maigret story, Pietr-le-Leton was written.
In Malniveau Prison Pelleter is in the village of Verargent, near the prison of the title. He is there to question a serial child killer who has, in the vein of Hannibal Lector, helped Pelleter solve other crimes. While taking Mahossier’s testimony, the killer drops a hint about a series of stabbings that have taken place at the prison but have been hushed up. At the same time, in the village, a body has been discovered lying in the gutter during a rain storm. Initially the victim was thought to have gotten drunk and drowned in the gutter, but it is soon discovered that the man was in fact stabbed to death. Further, he is not known to the people of the village and he also had his clothes changed after having been stabbed.