THE TWENTY-YEAR DEATH
By Ariel S. Winter
Hard Case Crime. 670 pp. $25.99
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then crime fiction maestros Georges Simenon, Raymond Chandler and Jim Thompson are feeling the love these days. Baltimore writer Ariel S. Winter has summoned up the stylistic spirits of each legendary novelist for his debut, a massive and marvelous trilogy called “The Twenty-Year Death.”
Set in 1931 France, “Malniveau Prison,” the first of these books, centers on Chief Inspector Pelleter, a melancholic character reminiscent of Simenon’s famed Inspector Maigret. Visiting the French countryside to retrieve information from a child killer he’d convicted several years earlier, Pelleter is drawn into the investigation of a stabbing victim found in the small town nearby. After that victim is revealed to have been both a prisoner at Malniveau and the father of local beauty Clothilde-ma-Fleur, a woman who soon vanishes, the plot thickens rapidly, with Pelleter’s half-procedural, half-intuitive approach ultimately uncovering Malniveau’s dark present and even more brutal past.
“The Falling Star” leaps to 1941 and to California, where private investigator Dennis Foster is hired to keep an eye on movie star Chloe Rose, who fears that she’s being stalked. The studio thinks she’s irrational, but Chloe (formerly Clothilde-ma-Fleur) has “displaced champagne as America’s favorite import,” and there ARE three years to go on her five-year contract, so they’ll indulge her. It’s a cushy gig for Foster — “Just sit in your car and watch her and collect your money,” someone tells him. But, not unlike Chandler’s iconic hero Philip Marlowe, this detective cares about professional ethics, and his seriousness about the job leads him to the discovery of another starlet’s mutilated corpse and then deeper into the mire of a story in which everyone has something to hide.
A character who plays an integral supporting role in each of those first two books steps up to narrate “Police at the Funeral,” the noirish, Jim Thompson-esque final installment. Shem Rosenkrantz is Clothilde/Chloe’s husband, a best-selling novelist turned hack screenwriter who’s little more than a washed-up has-been by 1951, when he’s summoned to Maryland for the reading of his first wife’s will. Shem gets no inheritance, but a drunken fight leads to an accidental death that moves him closer to a $2 million windfall. But was it really an accident? Or did some ugly part of his subconscious want to kill? Or maybe fate had a hand here. And what about the police? Don’t they seem suddenly suspicious? Or no, it’s just paranoia, right?
Winter captures the tics and trembles of Thompson’s style — that conversational, stutter-step narration, with its quick reversals of qualification, correction and contradiction. And this crime-fiction chameleon just as smoothly masters Simenon’s economical, no-nonsense storytelling and achieves with ease Chandler’s potentially treacherous mix of simile-rich description, digressive commentary on class and culture and wry wisecracks — as here, when after taking a “thoughtful beating” from a gangster’s muscleman, Shem says, “I had to get undressed before I could get dressed again, which only hurt a little. No more than getting gored by a bull.” These stories aren’t parodies or satires, but Winter is clearly having fun playing up each writer’s mannerisms and motifs.
But for all the brilliance of these literary impressions, does Winter offer some deeper understanding or appreciation of Simenon, Chandler and Thompson — or is the mimicry just gimmickry? I’d lean heavily in Winter’s favor there. Inhabiting another writer’s work offers some unique opportunities for critical engagement and indirect commentary, and the trilogy can suggest fresh perspectives on the authors in question.
Does Winter sustain the performance creditably for nearly 700 pages? And what’s the payoff at the end? I kept waiting for sharper connections and richer revelations as the writer Shem Rosenkrantz moved from cameo to center stage — kept wanting to discover something exciting and unexpected about the first book here after finishing the third. But Winter doesn’t entirely deliver on that count.
Still, it’s difficult not to feel a little spellbound by “The Twenty-Year Death.” In the final oddly triumphant image of Shem — “And I grinned all the way” — I thought I could glimpse the author’s giddy glance back at his achievement here: outrageous, obsessive, playful. Such qualities should win over aficionados of the writers emulated here — and make them fans of this fresh new voice in crime fiction.
Taylor reviews mysteries and thillers frequently for Book World.