Friday, January 11, 2013

Review & Giveaway: The Twenty-Year Death by Ariel S. Winter (4/5)

By Jonathan Wilhoit

(For giveaway entry and rules, see the Rafflecopter widget at the bottom of the page.)

Twenty Year Death Book Cover
Let me start off by saying that if you haven’t heard of Hard Case Crime by now, you need to be shot.  Well, maybe not shot.  That might be a tad harsh.  Maimed, then?  Bludgeoned about the head and shoulders?  Slapped with a catfish?  Yeah, that’s about right.  When I’m king of the world, all justice will be dispensed via catfish, so we’ll go with that one.

Hard Case Crime is a line of books, formerly of Random House, now of Titan Books, that specializes in reprints of classic crime novels, new novels by old masters (see my review of Getting Off by the inimitable Lawrence Block--see also the interview in which the crime master hands me my ass), and crime tales from new writers in the genre.  Their covers are inspired by the “pulp sleaze” aesthetic of the 40s, 50s, and 60s—a fact which makes them as visually pleasing as they are literarily pleasing… if that’s even a real term.

One of their biggest titles to date—both in the media hype it has generated and the size of that huge honkin’ tome—was something called The Twenty-Year Death by Ariel S. Winter.  Maybe you’ve heard of it?  It has certainly made the rounds on all the important news outlets—and for good reason.  The Twenty-Year Death is unique among crime literature, for a number of reasons.  For instance, it’s Winter’s first novel.  Not all that impressive, really, until you consider that the book is a 670-page behemoth that is, in actuality, three separate books told in the style of three separate mystery/crime masters that intertwine to tell the story of a doomed novelist and his pretty but fragile wife.  In a world where many publishers won’t even consider a book from a first-time novelist that is over 80,000 words, that’s nothing short of amazing.  As Charles Ardai, creator of the Hard Case Crime label, said in a (somewhat) recent interview:
“I fell in love with the book and bought it even though it’s three times the length of our usual books (by far the longest book we’ve ever published—180,000 words), and even though you’re always told, as a publisher, that first novels don’t sell.  I did it because it’s a stunning performance and just left me grinning the widest grin I've had on my face for a long, long time.”
Now that’s a strong endorsement.  But what else do you expect from the publisher of said book?  The real brilliance of the novel, however, isn't its length.  It’s the way in which Winter is able to deftly mimic the styles of no less than three crime writers of decades past while at the same time managing to avoid making the narrative satirical or pastiche.  The three separate books could easily stand on their own as novels to themselves, but Winter connects them all with an (at times tangential) thread that weaves its way through the narratives all the way to the grand finale at the end.  Doing something like that on your first outing takes talent, perseverance, and guts.  A whole freaking lot of guts.

Twenty Year Death Illustration Daniel Fishel
(c) Daniel Fishel
The first book, “Malvineau Prison,” is set in a small French town during the year 1931.  It’s written in the dry, semi-clipped style of Georges Simenon, the world renown French/Belgian mystery writer who created the Paris commissaire and investigator extraordinaire, Jules Mairgret.  The protagonist, a Paris policeman named Inspector Pelleter, arrives in the small town to speak with a prisoner currently being held in the nearby penitentiary, Malvineau Prison.  The prisoner, whom Pelleter put in prison years ago for unspeakable crimes against children, has summoned him to the town to look into the murders of several prisoners.  The guards don’t seem to want to help, and the local police don’t know dick, so it’s up to Pelleter to ferret out the murderer.  One of the slain prisoners is the father of a young French girl, Clotilde Rosenkrantz.  She is shy, petite, and utterly lovely, inspiring in men an almost uncanny desire to protect her from the evils of the world.  She is married to an impetuous (and often drunk) American novelist, Shem Rosenkrantz.  Both of them live in the town near the prison.  And even though the couple plays a supporting role at best in “Malvineau Prison,” theirs is the story that will tie each of the books together.

The second book, “The Falling Star,” owes its setting, tone, and stylistic idiosyncrasies to none other than Raymond Chandler—my hero.  It’s set in Hollywood/L.A. (or Santa Ana, as it’s been renamed in the story—another Chandlerism) during 1941 and is told from the first person perspective of Dennis Foster, an ex-cop-turned-private-investigator with a nihilistic world view and a heart of gold.  Clotilde Rosenkrantz has relocated to California and is now a big-time Hollywood star known as “Chloe Rose.”  Shem Rosenkrantz is a screen writer/drunk/philanderer/sometimes pornographer who, though still dedicated to Clotilde, is, as Philip Marlowe might say, “a heel of the first order.”  A movie studio hires Foster as a babysitter for Chloe Rose who is paranoid that she’s being followed.  It turns out that she really is paranoid and is only imagining the whole thing, but in the process Foster stumbles upon Rosenkrantz’s girlfriend--brutally stabbed and exsanguinated—which puts him on to a string of similar murders.   Foster is discharged from the studio’s employ, warned off the case, but in true Chandleresque form, he refuses to let go and follows the bloody trail to the doorstep of Hollywood royalty.

The final book, titled “Police at the Funeral,” is homage to Jim Thompson—you know, the guy who wrote The Killer Inside Me and dozens of other crime novels?  Jump another 10 years in the future, and Shem Rosencrantz is a washed-up novelist who owes thousands of dollars to creditors, shacks up with a known prostitute, and is running on the fumes of his alcoholism and washed-up literary career.  For the last ten years, Chloe Rose has been living in a private “rest home” where she’s been interred due to her paranoid and nervous delusions.  At the opening of the narrative, Rosencrantz is in Maryland for the reading of his rich ex-wife’s will.  The entire estate is left to his estranged son, Joseph (who hates his father’s guts because… well, he ran out on his mother and he’s also just a self-servering asshole).  Rosencrantz attempts to ingratiate himself upon his son and make up for the past (and also maybe con some money out of him so he can pay Chloe’s overdue hospital bills), but Joseph will have none of it.  There’s a struggle, and Rosencrantz accidentally kills his own son.  Knowing that Rosencrantz, as Joseph’s closest living relative, stands to inherit  a lot of money, the prostitute girlfriend helps him cover up the murder by setting the house on fire, but things are contemplated by… well, a lot of stuff. Eventually Rosencrantz attempts cover up the first murder with yet more murders, and, as the narrative begins to spiral out of control, the meaning behind the novel’s title starts to become apparent.

author ariel s. winter
Ariel S. Winter
Winter masterfully channels each selected crime author.  “Malvineau Prison’ portrays the grim rigidity of life’s circumstances often found in Simenon’s work.  “The Falling Star” captures one man’s futile struggle against a corrupt world—the knight in rusting armor immortalized in Chandler’s Philip Marlowe.  And “Police at the Funeral” encapsulates the bleak, soulless world of Noir where no character is truly good, and all are motivated by the base emotions universal to the human condition.  It’s so masterful that, if you changed around some names and locations, you might think you were reading a long lost classic.  But that unbelievable skill iss also the very thing that hamstrings The Twenty-Year Death.  If all you’re doing is channeling the masters, you can’t really cement your place as a master in your own right, now can you?  I mean, No one ever called Weird Al Yankovic a musical genius, now did they? 

Oh wait, they did?  Damn it…

Kurt Cobain’s opinion notwithstanding, I’m sticking with my original statement.  While it was fun to pick out the familiar tropes and idioms in each story, there was little suspense to the narratives.  Winter pulls off a virtuoso impersonation, true, but his talented mimicry is a double-edged sword that telegraphs the intent of each novel.  If you’re familiar with the genres—and it’s safe to say you are if you’re reading a book like The Twenty-Year Death—the events don’t come as a surprise.  Perhaps that is why the ending comes as something of a foregone conclusion rather than the bang modern readers are accustomed to.  And to be honest, it took me way more time to this sucker than its 670 pages should have warranted.  That probably had more to do with the drama that was going on in my personal life at the time I read it, but then again, maybe not.  Whatever the reason, I might as well throw that out there too. 

All things considered, I give The Twenty-Year Death four stars—albeit a hesitant four stars.  It just doesn’t seem quite there, you know?  But at the same time, three and a half stars doesn’t do it justice either.  Three and three quarters maybe? 

Ah, the hell with it.  Four stars.  Final answer.



About the Reviewer:  He makes a living in the world of corporate IT, but he gets his jollies through the nirvana of armchair literary criticism. Blame it on a liberal arts education and liberal quantities of whiskey. It's a dangerous combination, one that has resulted in a blog called I Read a Book Once, where Jonathan can express his cantankerous inner literary critic to the fullest extent. When not reading, writing, or getting his geek on (i.e. working), he mostly hunkers down in the bunker with his redhot smokin' wife and tries to survive the hurricane that is his half-crazed toddler.


So you were wondering about the giveaway I mentioned earlier?  Up for grabs today is a hardback copy of The Twenty-Year Death by Ariel S. Winters—the whole shebang.  The publishers accidentally sent me two of them, and so the excess of my bounty I bestow upon the fine people of Internetland.  But this is a big ‘ole honkin’ SOB, and I’m using my own money to ship it, so eligible entrants will be limited to the United States only.  Apologies to all my international friends.  I’m a cheap bastard.  Sign up using the Rafflecopter widget below.

a Rafflecopter giveaway


  1. Thank you for hosting this giveaway.

  2. Excellent review Jonathan, sounds like a great book.

    1. Thanks, Z. It really was good. Can't wait to see what Mr. Winter has up his sleeve in his next novel.

  3. I would love to read this book—thanks for the opportunity to win a copy!

    skkorman AT bellsouth DOT net

    1. My pleasure--sharing the reading wealth is what we do around here. :)

  4. My personal definition of "noir" is "could I see Humphrey Bogart in some role in the movie version"? The cover alone makes me wish Mr. Bogart was still available to play a part!

    1. p.s. kuligowskiandrew [at] gmail [daht] com

    2. I like that definition--a lot. Bogie was awesome, and in this instance, I can totally see him as Shem Rosencrantz. Or Dennis Foster, for that matter.

  5. What an awesome post. I have heard of Hard Case Crime, so I should be ok :)