The Twenty-Year Death is the debut novel from former bookseller Ariel S. Winter, and what an audacious debut this is. The book tells the story of American writer Shem Rosencrantz and his French wife Clotilde-ma-Fleur, two people who are slowly destroyed by violent circumstances and irrevocable selfishness. But their story is told in three separate books contained within The Twenty-Year Death, each taking place in a separate decade and written in the style of a different celebrated crime novelist.
The first segment, "Malniveau Prison," follows Chief Inspector Pelleter as he investigates a crime in 1931 France. Pelleter brings to mind the Georges Simenon detective Commissaire Maigret, a melancholy drinker, avid smoker (of cigars, not Maigret's iconic pipes) and brilliant detective who follows his instincts as often as he honors his deductive reasoning. Pelleter, like Maigret, often thinks longingly of his wife at home, as he is stuck in the small town of Verargent solving the case of a series of bodies missing from the nearby Malniveau Prison. And like Maigret, Pelleter serves as a mentor to a younger officer of the local police office, a go-getter named Martin that Pelleter quite admires.
Pelleter's investigation leads him to Clotilde-ma-Fleur Rosencrantz, a beautiful young woman who has just lost her father, a convict whose body was recently discovered. Clotilde is married to the esteemed novelist Shem, a heavy drinker but brilliant critical success who admires his wife most ardently.
"The Falling Star" takes place in Los Angeles in 1941, as P.I. Dennis Foster is hired to look out for a paranoid film star named Chloe Rose. Foster is like nothing so much as Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, a wise-cracking detective who never misses a trick but values his integrity over all else. It turns out that Chloe Rose is the stage name of one Clotilde-ma-Fleur, who moved to California with her philandering husband so he could write screenplays and she could become an international star. And of course it turns out that Clotilde is not as paranoid as everyone would make her out to be; someone truly is out to get her.
The trilogy is complete with "Police at the Funeral," narrated by Shem Rosencrantz himself as he travels back to Calvert, Maryland in 1951 for the reading of his first wife's will. Clotilde is now safely stowed away in a mental health facility and Rosencrantz has squandered all of his literary good will, money and possibly his talent. A drunken fights leads to an accidental (?) death, and Rosencrantz, like many a Jim Thompson protagonist, finds himself drowning in a sea of self-destruction and nihilism.
As Winter darts between narrators, decades, settings and styles, he achieves the unthinkable: each new universe is as compelling as the last. And more notably, he never resorts to slavish imitation, honoring these genre greats instead with knowing nods to theme and style but never with forgery. Winter lives just as easily within Simenon's small town French elegance, Chandler's sly commentary, his "okey"s and his rich descriptions, Thompson's uneven, frenzied sordidness.
A quote from "Malniveau Prison" captures Georges Simenon's provincial French descriptions and poetic prose:
The cafe was empty of other customers. The proprietor stood behind the counter with his arms crossed, watching the water run. Two electric wall sconces had been lit in deference to the continued storm.
An automobile passed around the square, its dark form like some kind of lumbering animal, its engine sawing diligently, audible and then gone.
Winter channels Raymond Chandler's crackling dialogue and dry observations in this excerpt from "The Falling Star":
At last he slapped his desk and said, 'Oh, hell, you've already seen the kind of thing I have to deal with. These movie people live in a different world than guys like you and me.'
'That's not what Life magazine says. Haven't you seen? Bogie built his own porch and Garbo sews all her clothes.' Knox snorted at that. 'Well, they love and hate and die like anyone else, don't they?'
'Sure, but they do it to the sound of violins, with their faces ten feet tall.'
And Rosencrantz's inner monologue in "Police at the Funeral" clearly echoes Thompson's bleak stream-of-consciousness and bald truths:
I wanted to scream at them, to tell them they were banal, that their lives would end, and what meaning did they have? How unnatural to sit in a building thirteen stories high made out of materials we couldn't name and couldn't say how they were made, in a block of pavement and concrete that someone had had to lay down, where once there had been only nature, and the few people hunting and fishing, just getting by. And sure, having wars. They killed each other too. But they couldn't conceive of this, a hotel in a city. Yet somebody had, and it was so audacious as to be beyond comprehension.
How remarkable that all three of those excerpts were written by one person, published in one novel. But is all of this sly endeavor to a purpose? Is Winter merely offering a clever gimmick, or is he saying something with this unusual and risky enterprise? While The Twenty-Year Death offers much in the way of thematic throughline, it offers little in the way of thematic resolution. Each miniature mystery within these three books is neatly solved and tidily filed away, but Winter leaves the question of "Why?" unresolved at the end of the novel.
That said, The Twenty-Year Death is an irresistible read, one that demands cuddling up to a soundtrack of gloomy rainstorms. For lovers of noir fiction or admirers of pure literary audacity, this book is an imperative.
You can read an exclusive excerpt from the Chandler portion here.