The Twenty-Year Death – Ariel S. Winter

2 out of 5


Malniveau Prison: 4 out of 5

The Falling Star: 3 out of 5

Police at the Funeral: 2 out of 5

The explanatory blurb from the back cover: The Twenty-Year Death is “…written in the form of three separate crime novels, each set in a different decade and penned in the style of a different giant of the mystery genre.” Indeed, Twenty-Year Death’s initially imposing – for a pulp book – 600-page length is actually three 200 page novels, with their own chapter header styles, writing styles, and characters, and plots, with some connecting threads justifying their all being housed under one cover. Perhaps this sounds a bit like a shtick.

I’m not against shticks – which I’ll vaguely define as when the pitch is more important than the plot – but I do think their value gets more and more diminished the longer time investment you expect of your audience. So it can surely work in a movie, when you only have to distract me for 90ish minutes, but when you tail that out to something that’s serialized – TV, comics – or a several hundred page book, it’s a tougher sell; ideally, there is still a plot remaining to back up that bitch.

On the one side, Winter does make sure to make each of these sub-Twenty-Year Death books complete in and of themselves, and while I’m sure if I were a more avid reader of the writers to whom each section is a tribute I might have more (plus or minus) to say, my complete lack of / passing familiarity with them does not put me out: the books read like the author’s voice, and not someone mimicking another’s, while at the same time differentiating themselves (and their tone) by genre – Malniveau is an old school mystery; Star is hard-boiled; Funeral is noir.

The other side, regarding the nature of the structure, I was left with a big ol’ Why?, which suggests that the shtick rather failed. I can guess at / imagine how the idea came to be, and while it’s all purely conjecture, I can’t figure any direction that necessitated this setup, beyond that it seemed like a cool idea. Fine, but that puts you in another position to have to prove that to your audience – a reader in this case – and if you take a look at the diminishing returns of how I’ve ranked each book (which I’ve tried to read as “separately” as possible), the sequencing makes the project less and less convincing as it goes along.

Some spoilers as to how the books are connected will follow, though no spoilers regarding specifics.

Malniveau Prison is fantastic. Written in the French-set setting informed by the author’s style to which it is attributed – Georges Simnenon – and set in 1931, we get some really intriguing characters and interplay, with a continually more and more complex central mystery. A discovered body in a city street turns out to be that of an inmate of the titular prison – one who’d been reported as present that same day. And not only was the prisoner “disguised” – no longer in prison duds – but signs of the murder had been covered up as well. This happens to coincide with the visit of Chief Inspector Pelleter, invited there to speak to another inmate whom he’d put away some time back – a vicious murderer who ends up taunting the inspector, but then whispering about some conspiracies inside the prison as well. Is this tied to that discovered inmate? How about the warden who has suddenly gone on vacation? The writing is patient and mature, Pelleter’s laid-back but focused investigatory skills lots of fun to follow along, and the other characters juggled through – a drunken writer, an eager journalist, the competent but out-of-his-depth local police chief – great for playing off of, and enhancing the small-town mystery vibe. The book does get to a crux when the mystery is essentially solved, and it feels like Winter is trailing things along to find some more spectacular ending, but the whole book has a nice undercurrent of ominousness that bodes well, allowing us to believe that some drifting concepts from this will carry over to the following books nicely.

…Though that doesn’t really prove out. The Falling Star, set in 1941 and written in the style of Chandler, has a fittingly tough-talking PI in the lead, hired on a milk-run type job to “protect” a Hollywood starlet from a threat no one seems to believe is real; studio big-wigs just trying to keep their star happy so the movies can move along. Dennis Foster is the ideal lead, refusing to just play his part and actually trying to earn his pay by investigating, which of course leads to uncovering lots of double-crosses and dirty dealings along the way, getting continually shushed off the case only to be hired back on by someone else. Foster’s smart but knows how to bide his team; he’s the rogue to Pelleter’s respected lead, often finding himself on the receiving end of physical or verbal abuse, but sticking in there to get his man. Unfortunately, the actual case isn’t all that interesting. We’re intended to be interested in the subject of his case – Chloe Rose – because she featured in Malniveau Prison, but we’re never really sold on the case otherwise. Winter is relying on this hook to draw us in, and it’s not there. This also feels like one of the weaker threads from Malniveu to use as a link, and so – for me, at least – I kept waiting for some other shoe to drop as to why her presence was actually important, and it’s just not there. Individual scenes crackle with hard-boiled verve, but the motivation to get from scene to scene drags, and the over-populated, bland cast doesn’t help. It has the trappings of the scene – tense scuffles, lots of red herrings – but it turns out when you’re not much invested in the characters or crime, the stakes aren’t there. The book gets by on gathering up all of these pieces intriguingly, then lets its air out over the remaining pages, making it a bit of a slog to complete.

Leaving the least engrossing, the Jim Thompson-tribute Police at the Funeral, set in 1951. This boils down to a wrong-place-wrong-time noir – an accidental murder that bubbles into further and further troubles for its protagonist, Shem Rosenkrantz, and with Rosenkratz’s appearance, any hopes of Twenty-Year Death making good on a “reason” for the two prior books to exist disappears: Rosenkratz is Rose’s husband, and the aforementioned drunken author from book 1. He was an amusing annoyance in that book, and then as bland as any other side character in Falling Star. Here, as a completely washed out author, you can sense Winter toying around with ‘Funeral’ as a study on the art of writing in general, but that’s a rather shallow aspect of things. More centrally, Shem is, to me, one of the worst kinds of leads: self-important and not intelligent enough to navigate his way through his accidental crimes, but with too sympathetic of narration to play those elements up. Like, there’s humor in how Shem claims he’s still on the wagon and yet getting drunk all the time, but it’s a joke that runs its course after its first use, and yet is hammered on like it’s clever throughout. The deep dives into how he suffers through ongoing writer’s block can be intriguing, but it’s almost distracted by the story, and then the story itself never feels quite deep enough, because Winter is attempting to use the preceding books as backfill on that depth. Four-hundred pages of background via a side character in those novels, which would’ve been better spent tightening up this novel with the same, instead of extended rambles of Shem trying to figure out how he feels about his crime. I do like the pieces of this book – the good cop / bad cop detectives, the snippy woman-on-the-side – and, interestingly, I think that Shem’s backstory would’ve worked better without Malniveau / Falling Star providing some context, and rather leaving it more mysterious. To clarify how that sits with a preceding statement I made, Winter sets himself up here to say things along the lines of “…this is similar to when X happened,” and we know the details of X from the other books. It feels clunky, though; it’s too obviously a reference. If X didn’t exist on the page, Winter would’ve had to write in some more emotional depth to Rosenkratz within the book itself, and then could’ve mystified X a bit in the process. Anyhow, the lack of investment that dragged down Falling Star’s latter half is the dominating vibe here, only stirred up when actual story beats occur.

…Ultimately leaving me with that question of Why? Switching the order of these books from last to first would’ve helped, I think; even if the title – Twenty-Year Death – is meant to be representative of Rosenkratz’s two-decade slide into the character we meet in book 3, that still works if you go in reverse order, and has the benefit of concluding when things were at their relative best for Shem, while also being the most intriguing standalone book of the 3 – a distracting bittersweetness that would maybe make reflecting on the journey more worthwhile. However, that still doesn’t exactly address the question, because I still wouldn’t say there was there really a reason to sell the books all as one, except that it makes for good back cover copy.

The final ranking is representative of the book as a whole, but also knocked down for some presentation notes: Partly on the author, I found it kind of b.s. that his tribute to each book only lists the author he’s referencing as initials, i.e. book one’s tribute is “in memorium G.S. with apologies.” Without accompanying press to explain this, I think that might be a cool mystery to “solve” who the initials are, but then the back cover tells you their names. It’s sort of a mismatch between, possibly, Winter’s intent and the way the book was decided to be marketed. I also didn’t like that the top of the pages on list the whole book’s name – The Twenty-Year Death – instead of the subtitle books, or both. If you’re just flipping through it, it’s nice to have the context of which book you’re reading just by looking at the top of the page, but alas, you don’t. I know, I guess it ultimately doesn’t matter, use a bookmark, whatever, but I do think it has an effect on one’s mindset, subconsciously, while reading. Reinforcing these books as, truly, separate, instead of one long novel, might’ve shifted my experience a bit. Who knows.

It was a good pitch. But the investment it required did not, for me, pay off.