The Twenty-Year Death
Ariel S. Winter
Hard Case Crime (2012)
Anthony Vacca's rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Note: This is a long review because there are essentially three books within that need reviewing. So give me a break; I did my damnedest at making this interesting.
Reading this book feels like your experiencing a milestone in crime history first hand. Which is a pretty lofty claim, but you tell me about any other crime or mystery novel that’s this ambitious? Ariel S. Winter decided not to just write a novel, but to structure it as three different novels with each one tackling a different decade and the works of a different great crime writer. You’re at ground zero in experimental crime-writing. And the end result? Why nothing less than a bravura homage to the works of George Simenon, Raymond Chandler, and Jim Thompson—and at the same time, a sweeping epic about the life of an author and his path to self-destruction through booze and women, which is the stuff of pure pulp gold.
The novel starts off with Malniveau Prison, a story set in a sleepy village in 1931 France. What keeps this place from being idyllic is the fact that on the outskirts of town is a prison for dangerous criminals. Oh, and there's also the fact that a large number of bodies start popping up all over town. Thankfully, the renowned inspector Pelleter (what a great name) just so happens to have some business in town: he has come to see an imprisoned murderer about potential information on another crime. Pelleter is less than excited to see this murderer because he happened to be the one who arrested him back when the killer was kidnapping children and keeping them locked in his basement where he would force them to fight each other to the death and cannibalize one another.
It was about this point that I knew I was onto something good. Not because I enjoy child death matches (but who doesn’t these days? Hunger Games…oh, was I supposed to insert a polite, muffling cough in front of that first? My bad.), but up until this point—let’s say about twenty pages in—I was kind of wary of this particular “novel” within the novel. I have never read a George Simenon novel or any of the other British or French novels that delight so many readers in their cozy armchairs because I admit that I am a first and foremost a fan of the American sensibility towards the mystery genre, and I will argue with you until you never talk to me again about how Americans perfected the genre.
But I read P.D. James Talking About Detective Fiction a while back, and she did a fine job at giving me a better appreciation for the European style. I still don’t particularly care for the bloodless inconvenience of the murders or the belaboring of quaint and rustic manners that seem so obligatory in these kinds of books; but James little book also made me realize that maybe I should actually read some of these books before I start casting stones. Malniveau Prison has further made me feel this way.
While I am sure that Simenon or Christie or Sayers weren’t giving their readers as quite a sordid mystery as this, it really does feel like Winter has captured the atmosphere and tone of a novel from this time period. There are some really nice moments of exposition in which we watch Pelleter work his way to the logical conclusion of the murders. Even though the story never relies heavily on action, there was never really a moment where I grew bored with the narrative or really had a clear idea where the story was going. Another neat trick that Winter does is that he gives the impression that this book would be an entry somewhere in the middle of the Pelleter series. There is a young officer who is somewhat star-struck by Pelleter and also a reporter who asks the detective some hard questions about things that have happened before the events of this book, things involving Pelleter’s wife. I thought this was kind of a stroke of brilliance, because it made me want to know more and left me with the feeling that I guess I’ll have to read the other books to find out. And isn’t that what every good author who writes a series hopes for when you pick up one of their books? Damn impressive stuff.
After the balance of order is restored and things end on a subtly grim note, we take a step ten years forward to 1941, and now we’re in Raymond Chandler’s turf: the gilded glitz and glamour of Hollywood. The Falling Star shifts from the third person to the first, as private investigator Dennis Foster does his best Philip Marlowe impersonation. And it’s a pretty good one at that. What Winter really captures is the way Chandler could describe things, how Marlowe can walk into a room and break down the decor in only a few quick, easy sentences. He can also size a person up faster than they can blink. There are some moments of good smart-ass dialogue, but a lot of it doesn’t quite get the tone right.
I wouldn’t say I was disappointed with this second act; I was hoping for a little more since the PI genre is my all time-favorite of any genre (or would this be a sub-genre?). Chandler is one of my favorite writers and no one does lifestyles of the rich and depraved better. But, like I said, Winter doesn’t quite get it right. Everyone is sleazy, but there isn’t that particular moral vacuity present that always made you realize how much of damn a hero Marlowe was to root for. The plot is something straight from a Chandler novel though. A studio hires on Foster to watch after a rising French starlet who claims that someone has been stalking her. It‘s not long before Foster finds another actress brutally murdered, is also hired to find the missing boyfriend of a closeted Hollywood leading man, and is told by the police and local gangsters to keep his nose out of it or else.
It felt like Winter was so concerned in getting that particular poetic cadence of Chandler’s writing down that he sort of skimped on the characters. Foster doesn’t really quite come off as captivating a hero as Marlowe, and the rest of the cast don’t stand out as much as some of the characters did in the first book. But never fear, because it’s never a dull read and Winter saves a hell of a third book for last.
So are you wondering what ties these first two acts together? And didn’t I say something at the beginning about an alcoholic author? Well the third and final book in this novel is narrated by Shem Rosencrantz, a failed novelist who you get to see slouching through the first two books as a secondary character. Shem was first seen getting his ex-patriot on with his young and lovely second wife in a sleepy village in France, but that little blissful extended honeymoon came to an end once a lot of people started dying. We saw the couple again in Hollywood; now not so happy even though Shem’s wife is an up and coming actress. But then bad luck strikes again as Shem’s wife starts getting paranoid about someone stalking her, and Shem’s girl on the side—another, slightly younger actress—gets all kinds of mutilated. And for some reason I can’t quite figure out, Shem’s ever-growing drinking problem is straining his personal relationships.
I wasn’t sure how this last book, Police at the Funeral, was going to work. It’s not the most inspired title for a homage to the barb-wire grit and nihilism of a Jim Thompson novel, but luckily Winter punched me in the face with this story and yelled, “WRONG!”
It’s 1951 and Shem is at his all-time lowest. With his wife gone and with a lot of debts he owes to a lot of bad people, Shem could certainly use a helping hand—especially if it is full of cash.
So when he hears word that his first wife has died and his presence is requested at the reading of her will, he tries not to let himself feel too hopeful about what he might get. His girlfriend Victoria on the other hand, sees this as a chance to rake in some easy cash. Shem’s first wife was apparently pretty loaded, so Victoria only sees it as a wise investment to pay Shem’s way over to Maryland from L.A and to put him up in a nice hotel. It’s a good thing Victoria’s other boyfriend is a well-off gangster that doesn’t seem to notice when she starts spending his money on another man—at least that is for now.Another thing that Shem is equally anticipating and dreading is the chance to reunite with his estranged son. Up until this point in life, Shem has treated his son as a casualty of his first marriage, having little time or interest to give to his only son. Now with not a lot going for him in his life, Shem sees this as opportunity to right at least one mistake in a lifetime full of them.
I really can’t say another word about the plot lest I give away all the vicarious thrills of the book. If you have ever read a Jim Thompson novel, then you will know that things can only go badly from here in the most sordid and banal of ways. As a homage, Winter goes beyond trying to just parrot Thompson’s writing style (which is a little bit what The Falling Star felt like); instead he takes the best aspects of Thompson’s first person narration and synthesizes it into an original and compelling voice. Like any of Thompson narrators, Shem is a sleazeball that spends a lot of time feeling sorry for himself and a lot of time justifying all the startling violence he learns he is capable of over the course of the novel. What marks this as a different animal than Thompson is that Shem comes from a cultured, educated background. This gives his constant inner monologue an interesting twist. Usually Thompson’s protagonists are people with little education and the denizens of very outskirts of society. But Winter’s take on this character-type ashows that educated people who create works of art that are admired by many are just as capable of all the greed and pettiness of any other disappointing human on this earth. Sound grim? Well that is and always has been the gospel according to Jim Thompson.
In conclusion, I wanted to give this novel five stars. I don’t mean that the book is bad in anyway; it’s damn impressive that Winter is able to sustain suspense for nearly seven hundred pages. My main complaint is that I wished Winter had strived for just a little more. I have spent a lot of time thinking about what I would say in this very long review, about what themes I saw that linked the three stories together into one cohesive novel. Besides having Shem and his wife show up in all three, I felt a little hard-pressed to make the connections. I know that Winter was inspired to write this book after having read Cloud Atlas, which features multiple seemingly-unrelated stories written in different styles but ultimately connected by themes. It felt as if Winter was spending time on the technical aspect of pulling The Twenty-Year Death off that he slightly faltered in weaving it all together thematically. But still, all three of these could stand on their own as separate novels (some stronger than others) which is a feat in itself. It is also kind of neat to see the first two parts as books plucked from their respective and drastically different series, and to see the different ways the narrators view Shem. For Pelleter and Foster, he’s just another character passing through.
But maybe my complaints are unfair. Maybe I want too much from Winter—this is only his first novel, for crying out loud. But Winter has given the reader a work that should only be treated with such a high level of discern. I loved the amount of ambition on display, because there is a lot of it. I loved the amount of seriousness and sophistication Winter put into this book, because I think too many readers feel these are and always will be lacking from the mystery/crime genre. I love all the detectives, criminals, dames, double crosses, boozing, and existential lamenting that only books in this genre can deliver; so I loved that Hard Case had the cojones to publish this experimental behemoth of a book. I hope other writers and publishers will feel the need to step up their game. I loved the pleasure of reading this book all the way through, and I want you to love it too. So what are you waiting for? I’m done here.
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