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.
In between, we’re treated to a piece of hard-knock detective action as over-achieving p.i. Dennis Foster runs afoul of Hollywood types, druggies and gangsters after he’s been given a pro forma assignment to follow a movie actress who claims that she is being stalked. While no one at the studio that’s hired Foster claims to believe the actress, our hero is driven to treat the case seriously and for his efforts is himself nearly framed for a murder. There’s a serial killer also skulking on the sidelines, but as with the solution to many of Raymond Chandler’s yarns, his presence in the tale almost seems like an afterthought.
Winter carries his tri-fold tale off with consummate skill, transcending mere mimicry primarily through the strength and complexity of his lead characters. His crowning character proves to be the lead of his Thompson-esque descent into murder and its entanglements. Winter’s anti-hero is a marvelous collection of boozy rationalizations and wishful delusions, a marked contrast to the overly clear-sighted detective heroes of the first two short novels. (At one level, you can perhaps see this mini-trilogy as a commentary on the devolution of the crime novel hero.)
If The Twenty-Year Death disappoints in any way, it’s in the fact that “Police at the Funeral” refuses to tie up any unresolved questions from the first two books. Yet this lack of resolution is thoroughly in keeping with its narrator’s self-absorption.
Winter’s novel is a groundbreaking crime epic that has this lover of hard case crime fare wondering what the man can do in a novel with his own voice. Hopefully, we’ll get to find out.