Crime novels are often criticized for being formulaic. Ariel S. Winter’s debut is a crime novel so formulaic, in a way, that it is actually one of the most original works of fiction I have read in any genre. The Twenty-Year Death is actually three novels in one, each written in the style of a classic crime writer. “Malniveau Prison” is set in France in 1931 and pays homage to Georges Simenon. “The Falling Star” takes place in 1941 in Raymond Chandler’s “San Angelo,” California. The twenty-year scope of the novel ends in 1951 with a nod to Jim Thompson in “Police at the Funeral.”
Each of the mini-novels could easily have been published separately, although they would likely have been rejected as overly derivative. Taken together, however, the three novels demonstrate the skill of a writer who can adopt and shed the voices of past masters with little difficulty. Because the mini-novels function as standalone works, I will discuss them each separately.
“Malniveau Prison” begins, as crime novels usually do, with a dead body. The victim has been found stabbed to death in the street of a provincial French town, yet there are no holes in his clothes. He was an inmate of nearby Malniveau Prison, yet he had neither escaped nor missed roll call the morning after he was killed. Solving the case falls to Chief Inspector Pelleter, a Parisian detective modeled after Simenon’s Maigret. Pelleter is only in town to interview another inmate at Malniveau, Mahossier, who is more like Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lector than any of the villains Maigret faced. Pelleter gets help from a reporter named Servièrs, who was taken from Simenon’s La Chien Jaune (1931, published in English as Maigret and the Yellow Dog in 1939).
“Malniveau Prison” is satisfyingly unpredictable. Winter throws a few curve balls and populates the town of Verargent with interesting characters. My only quibble is when an urbane Frenchman utters the most banal of 21st-century-football-coach-clichés, “It is what it is.” I suppose this is a reasonable modern English translation of c’est la vie, a cliché in its own right, but I still cringed when I read it.
The story picks up ten years later in a fictionalized Los Angeles. The protagonist of “The Falling Star” is private detective Dennis Foster, who will be familiar to fans of Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. A movie studio hires Foster to reassure paranoid star Chloë Rose, a character from “Malniveau Prison.” He then stumbles on a dead body and gets enmeshed in a world of crime, celebrity and corruption.
Dennis Foster is certainly a man of his time, but Winter tones down the racism, misogyny and homophobia in Chandler’s works while still presenting the different subcultures of “San Angelo.” Foster’s first-person narration is pitch perfect as he pulls back the Hollywood veneer to solve a case no one seems to want him to solve.
After another decade has passed, Chloë Rose’s husband narrates “Police at the Funeral.” Shem Rosenkrantz is a washed-up, alcoholic writer who played a minor role in the first two mini-novels. He comes to Calvert City for his ex-wife’s funeral. He hasn’t written anything in years, owes money to a gangster and needs to pay for Chloë’s mental health treatment. He is in town with Vee, the mistress he shares with a brutal mob boss, and is also trying to make amends with his estranged son. After a horrible accident, Rosenkrantz finds himself on the wrong side of both the law and the mob, and must take drastic measures to save his life and keep Chloë out of a state institution.
The third mini-novel is a bit of a departure from the previous two because Rosenkrantz is at the heart of the crime here, which really isn’t a mystery, rather than solving them as Pelleter and Foster do. He is nevertheless a perfectly-flawed and desperate character in the Thompson mold, although “Police at the Funeral” contains none of the wild surrealism that is Thompson’s trademark.
Interweaving three mini-novels in the style of famous crime writers is boldly ambitious, yet the biggest flaw in The Twenty-Year Death is its failure to take that ambition further. Besides the two characters who appear in all three stories, there is nothing to connect them. Perhaps this was unreasonable, but I expected an overarching narrative to run through the three mini-novels. The murders that take place over two decades only coincidentally touch these two characters in varying degrees of proximity.
With that being said, however, Ariel S. Winter can write entertaining stories in varied voices. This is no mean feat. A good writer must first be a good reader, and there is no question that Winter knows his source material inside and out. It is easy to slip inside his character’s heads and get hypnotized by their dialogue. Winter is a skilled craftsman, and I look forward to his sophomore effort.[subscribe2]