Ariel S. Winter,
The Twenty-Year Death
(Hard Case, 2012)

In The Twenty-Year Death, Ariel Winter has pulled off the technical achievement of this or any other year: a first novel that is actually three related novels, each in the style of a different master crime writer.

Book one, Malvineau Prison, takes place in France in 1931 and is written in the style of the French master of mystery, Georges Simenon. In it, Inspector Pelleter of the National Police travels to a small town to interview a convict at the prison and finds himself in the middle of a series of murders. A convict has been found dead in the town and Pelleter must find out who did it and how the deed was done; was the murder victim inside the prison and smuggled out or did he somehow escape and then immediately get killed? The search leads to the discovery of half-dozen bodies, all prisoners, all murdered and hurriedly buried in a field outside of town. As he investigates, Pelleter meet Clothilde-ma-Fleur Meprise, the daughter of the man found murdered in the town, and her husband, Shem Rosenkrantz, a writer from America to whom Clothilde has married.

When the original case is solved, the action jumps ahead 10 years to 1941 in the second novel, The Falling Star, and the action moves to Los Angeles against the setting of the movie industry. This one is written in the style of the American master, Raymond Chandler, whose voice Winter captures as well as he did Simenon's. In this one, private eye Dennis Foster, Winter's version of Chandler's Phillip Marlowe, is hired to keep an eye on a female movie star, who turns out to be Clothilde-ma-Fleur Meprise from the first novel. Shem, her husband, is now a Hollywood writer who is falling into unemployment and alcoholism. The Falling Star's plot is every bit as complicated as any of Chandler's and by the time Foster solves the case no one wanted him to solve in the first place, everything has changed; especially for Chlothilde and her husband: she has had a nervous breakdown and is institutionalized, while he has pretty much drunk his way out of the movie industry.

Which brings us to Police at the Funeral, the third book in this novel. In the first two, Shem Rosenkrantz was a minor character. In Police at the Funeral, which is written in the style of hard-boiled paperback writer from the '50s Jim Thompson, he takes center stage, narrating the novel in the first person and as the central character. It is 1951 and his wife is still in the institution, while Rosenkrantz, by now a hopeless drunk, is in Calvert City, Md., to hear the will of his first wife read; he expects to get some money, which he needs desperately, but, of course, the entire estate, worth $2 million (in 1951 dollars), goes to his son, whom he has rarely seen. Rozenkrantz is in debt to loan sharks and everyone else on the planet; his earning potential is gone: he's too drunk to write a novel and too drunk and unreliable to get a movie job. He goes to see his son while drunk and the younger man winds up accidentally killed.

With his son dead, the money is set to go to him, but the police suspect him of the crime and local gangsters are determined to get the $2 million away from him as soon as it is placed in his hands. His options are getting narrower and narrower until he is forced to make one last desperate move, which he knows cannot succeed but which leads to his final bid at salvaging something of his life.

As I said, The Twenty-Year Death is an amazing technical achievement. The idea of writing three separate novels, each fully self-contained and complete in itself, and by shifting characters from one to another and maintaining similar themes while building one huge overall theme, is impressive. I greatly admire this book and I truly enjoyed two-thirds of it.

What I found to be a weakness -- which other readers might find a strength -- is that the third one, in Jim Thompson's voice, is simply not as compelling as the first two. Maybe it's the choice of Rosenkrantz as the central character and narrator. All through the book, people refer to Shem as a loser, a bore, and after a while, I agreed with them. He spends a great deal of time feeling sorry for himself and after hanging out with Inspector Pelleter and Dennis Foster, I found Rosenkrantz to be something of a buzzkill.

book review by
Michael Scott Cain

16 June 2012

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