What’s more difficult than writing a crime novel? How about writing three of them, each one in the style of a different master of the genre. This is the challenge Ariel S. Winter set himself in The Twenty Year Death, and the literary ventriloquism he displays is astounding. This 600-pager is split into three linked sections, which stand equally well on their own. The first, Malniveau Prison, is a Simenon/Maigret pastiche, set in rural France in 1931. This is followed by the Chandler-esque The Falling Star, set 10 years later against a Hollywood backdrop. Finally, there’s Police at the Funeral, a spectacular riff on the 50s noir world of Jim Thompson.
It’s to Winter’s credit that he keeps the author’s voices consistent throughout, and The Twenty Year Death is a novel that strengthens as it progresses. Malniveau Prison is perhaps the least successful of the three sections, albeit only marginally – in places, the language feels slightly off-key, with American terms jarring against the European background. This is a shame, as it detracts from an otherwise evocative picture of rural France.
Winter is on firmer ground in The Falling Star, where he sends his detective Dennis Foster down the mean streets of San Angelo in search of a killer. Foster encounters madness, corruption and addiction at every turn, in a satisfyingly complex plot that has a twisted family at its centre. Winter evokes his predecessor remarkably well, albeit without the sardonic humour that Chandler used so effectively. But there’s also a modern twist to this familiar tale, one more reminiscent of James Ellroy’s Los Angeles; it doesn’t shrink away from the much darker side of human nature.
I’d reserve my highest praise for the final section, Police at the Funeral. From the opening lines there’s an extraordinary, inevitable feeling of dread hanging over the narrative, which you just know can’t end well. Winter’s portrait of his protagonist – an alcoholic writer in hock to the mob – is pitched perfectly. You can almost smell the desperation and alcohol pouring off him, and the readiness with which he crawls back into the bottle is genuinely unnerving. As reader, you want to shake him out of his stupor. But equally, you know that it is already too late. Such is the power of the best noir traditions, where the protagonist’s fate is sealed, and all the reader can do is watch, horrified but unable to look away.
If you’re daunted by what is undoubtedly a doorstop of a book, I have good news. From July, the three sections of The Twenty Year Death will be made available as separate paperbacks. What is more, each one has its own gorgeously illustrated cover, as we’ve come to expect from publisher Hard Case Crime. If you only buy one, I’d still have to recommend Police at the Funeral – but you should really read them all. That’s the only way to experience the books’ accumulative themes of menace, and a life gone off the rails.
Despite the unusual structure, The Twenty Year Death is never a tricksy book. Winter is utterly respectful of his source material; and in putting these three very different writers side by side to tell the same, over-arching story, he also pushes at the boundaries of the genre, and demonstrates just how incisive and devastatingly memorable it can be in the right hands.
A version of this review originally appeared in All Due Respect #2, still available from all reputable retailers. And Amazon.