This year I’ve decided to challenge myself to read a new book every week – and write about it a little bit here. I hope to touch on a variety of books – old and new, long and short, fiction and non-fiction – and maybe discover some new favourites. Week 18… The Twenty-Year Death (2012) by Ariel S. Winter
I thought it was about time I reviewed something more recent (the last few books have each been over one-hundred years old…). So here’s The Twenty-Year Death, a book I’ve been meaning to read for quite a while. This is perhaps one of the most ambitious debut novels I’ve ever read… because it’s not really one novel, but three! The book is made up of three loosely connected stories – loose enough that you could read one of them without touching the other two – taking place ten years apart from each other (1931, 1941 and 1951). Each of them is a crime novel in the style of a popular author from the first half of the nineteenth century. And they all add up to a pretty fantastic book.
Of the three authors whose writing these novels are based on (Georges Simenon, Raymond Chandler and Jim Thompson), I’m only familiar with Chandler. Though that feels like a good way to approach this book; it acts as a delightful selection of different crime-styles, offering tasters for you to find a new favourite author. The Twenty-Year Death did a fantastic job of satisfying my hardboiled crime novel craving, offering stories from the perspective of a police detective, a private investigator as well as an accidental criminal. They also seem to take inspiration from more modern fiction as well, with Malniveau Prison having a very clear Hannibal Lecter vibe. Each of the stories are strong enough to stand by themselves and I’m sure Winter would’ve had little trouble getting published if he’d only written one of these novels. To avoid just making general points, I will touch on each of these novels individually with the most minor of minor spoilers.
Detective Pelleter arrives at the titular prison in order to conduct an interview with an infamous serial killer who may possess vital information. While there his attention is drawn to a series of mysterious stabbings that have left several prisoners dead… With the help of some officers from a local town, Pelleter tries to unravel the mystery of Malvineau Prison.
And The Twenty-Year Death gets off to a very solid start. The novel is dense with plot and the central mystery is interesting, ending in a satisfying manner. I found myself becoming really attached to the world and characters that Winter creates in these pages. I would love to see another story with this cast (despite how very unlikely that is). Pelleter makes a great, if slightly typical, lead – a hardboiled detective interested in getting to the truth. Martin, the plucky and enthusiastic officer that the detective takes under his wing, was another favourite. Mahoisser – the sadistic killer that draws Pellter to Malvineau – gets very little page-time but makes a big impression. To be honest, most of the novel’s strengths come from what Winter chooses to keep off the page. He leaves plenty to the imagination with regards to the relationships between characters, such as Pelleter and Mahoisser, allowing them to maintain some mystery. The author knows how to keep people wanting more – and I definitely wanted more of these characters.
The Falling Star
The second story focuses on Dennis Foster, a private investigator hired to look after a high-profile actress who fears she’s being followed. What seems to be an easy job soon becomes complicated when the actress’s co-star turns up with her throat cut. Foster soon finds himself tangled up in an investigation that’ll take him to the dark underbelly of Hollywood…
This was by a fair amount my least favourite of the three stories. It wasn’t bad, it just didn’t click for me in the same way the other two did. While I managed to barrel through the others in a day each, this one took quite a bit longer. My main issue was that the central mystery felt nowhere near as compelling as Malniveau Prison’s. I won’t go into spoilers, but where the first story’s resolution felt both surprising and inevitable (like the best conclusions do) this one felt slightly less well-planned. The characters didn’t really feel as strong either. Foster the wise-cracking private investigator made a great protagonist, but no one else really made much of an impression. None of the other characters really get fleshed out that much. Overall, The Falling Star is still a great, enjoyable story… it just didn’t impress me as Winter’s other two pieces.
Police at a Funeral
Shem Rosenkrantz, a washed up author, returns to his ex-wife’s hometown to attend her funeral and the reading of her will. After many years of being distant from his son, he is keen to try and fix things up with him. However, shortly after arriving in town, a fatal accident passes that lands Shem in huge trouble with the law. In order to escape the consequences of his actions, he must do unthinkable things…
This one was easily my favourite. While I enjoyed the investigative style of the previous two stories, a tale from the perspective of a criminal was a nice change of pace. And boy, does Shem make a great protagonist! While Pelleter and Foster have clear, positive intentions, Shem is a bit more morally ambiguous. He’s built up of so many unlikeable aspects – such as his ego and alcoholism – yet I still found myself rooting for him till the end. Police at a Funeral definitely benefits from having a smaller cast than the previous two stories. With its large cast, The Falling Star never really got that much of a chance to develop any of its characters. This story does. Vee, Shem’s partner in crime, acts a great foil for him. Rosenkrantz’s relationship quasi father-son relationship with Montgomery also made up one of my favourite parts of the novel. This is as great a way for the trilogy to end as I could have hoped for.
I could say a lot more about The Twenty-Year Death, but I think what I’ve already said is a strong enough recommendation. It’s not a short book by any means, but its well-plotted storylines and engaging characters make it easy to burn through. Crime fiction doesn’t get much better than this.