Ariel S. Winter’s The Twenty-Year Death is an inspired, multi-volume work of fiction. It’s holographic, in that, like a hologram, one can take part of it away and the image remains, less crystal clear, but there nonetheless. The trilogy manifests as three distinct but connected stories stories – Malniveau Prison, The Falling Star, and Police at the Funeral – which may be read in any order, or quantity. Each book or any combination of the three yields a stand-alone experience, but the biggest picture is presented if one reads all three. I happened to read the second, then the first, then the last, so I can attest to the versatile order of readability. Every volume is set in a specific decade, with action of the books occurring in 1931, 1941 and 1951.
The novels are homages, each having been penned in the style of a classic crime writer. Malniveau Prison, the earliest of the three chronologically, has a classy, intellectual flavor in the vein of Georges Simenon. I am personally more familiar with the latter two of the classic writers whose voices Winter impersonates. The middle volume vividly echoes the verve of Chandler, while the last brings joyful tears to the eyes of hardened Jim Thompson fans. Nevertheless, Winter has a keen voice that permeates the specific style of all three books, a voice smooth but hard, tough but sexy, a purr with a growl behind it.
The individual novels in this set of connected crime tales each has its own respective mystery. Yet the trilogy as a whole follows the character arc of one Clotilde Rosenkrantz, a.k.a. Chloe Rose, and her temperamental husband, Shem. Clotilde and Shem form the thread that stretches through the three books. Each book is intimately and intricately connected with Clotilde, even though she isn’t necessarily always the fulcrum of the action. Indeed, the books seem to penetrate deeper and deeper into the Rosenkrantz marriage, family, and household, beginning with a story built around the perimeter of the couple in Malniveau Prison’s third-person narrative focused on Frenchman Detective Pelleter, and culminating in Shem Rosenkrantz’s narration of a deeply personal story in the final volume.
Malniveau Prison doesn’t adhere to the tone or atmosphere of the subsequent two books. Rather than the hard-boiled edge of The Falling Star’s Chandleresque voice or Police at the Funeral’s tough take on Thompson, the first one opts for a more elegant prose style, a droll subtlety perfectly suited for the quiet iconoclasm of the protagonist, Detective Pelleter. Naturally, it takes full advantage of its European setting, something else which greatly sets it aside from the distinctly American tone of the latter books.
The prison-centric tale commences with the discovery of a body in the city streets – the body of a man who should be back in his cell at Malniveau. The body of Clotilde’s father. He was even marked off on the prison’s roll call. They mystery consists of who singled out which prisoners for execution and why, who smuggled them out, and how did the perpetrator or perpetrators pull off this feat?
By the time the reader gets to 1941, Clotilde is now Chloe Rose, a once famous and beloved starlet burning up in her descent. A private dick is hired by the studio to keep an eye on her. She’s gotten paranoid, but the protection is to make Chloe feel better. Nevertheless, the private eye in question takes his work seriously and he’s not interested in just playing protector. The presence of paranoia does not guarantee the ephemeral nature of the apparent threat. There is a very real threat, one the P.I. has every intention of sussing out. Trouble is, there are heavy forces who want anything but the solving of this mystery. Some doors they’d prefer left closed. The P.I. is as stubborn as the conspirators, though, and things come to a violent head.
He’s not exactly dealing with the Illuminati but the Hollywood power brokers flex have enough muscle to make life very miserable. Losing his new job and its needed income is only the first warning. Danger, for Chloe and the dick, escalates past harassment to violent skullduggery as both people become entangled in a plot deep as a river that hinges, to Chloe’s detriment, around the tarnished star. And the only protector who tried to actually protect her has becomes the next target of the all-too-real menace.
The final volume is the most personal and the most enjoyable of these well-written, entertaining books. Shem narrates this harrowing tale of soured familial relations, inheritances and death. He still loves his wife, even after the decades and despite everything fate has done to tear them apart. But though he does dearly adore her, there nevertheless is distance, coolness between them. Shem flees the coolness, seeking warmth in another woman’s arms. He clings pathetically to the relationship despite the fact that his mistress has already grown to hate him. The only thing that could possibly keep her around is Shem’s inheriting family money, the heirs of which are to be announced at a forthcoming reading of the will.
The will’s revelations are shockers, and before all is said and done, a man accidentally dies at the hands of another man who stands to gain heavily from the first man’s death, though that was never a motivation of the accidental murderer. The situation is gravely compounded when the perpetrator, rather than contacting the police, engages in an elaborate cover-up to make the death look accidental. It is, in fact, accidental, but the accident must be one that cannot be tied to the killer.
This is arguably the most psychological of the three novels, as the reader spends the whole time in Rosenkrantz’s head and Rosenkrantz is in no good mental shape. Drunk, alienated from his family, masochistically staying with an embittered lover, Shem is a man beleaguered by life. His writing career is in the tank. His cooled marriage is in better shape, ironically, than his extramarital affair. Yet Shem finds a way to go deeper than rock bottom. With the will reading sending shockwaves through an already broken family and one pivotal person dying at the hands of another (in an accident that looks like anything but), Shem and Chloe are on the brink of destruction on a scale greater than they imagined, especially after all the trauma they’ve been through at this late stage. Things go from bad to worse to cataclysmic, with manslaughter leading to crime scene tampering and even worse. Bleakness dominates.
These are complex stories with intertwined threads spanning two decades and three novels. The Twenty-Year Death is a triptych of beautiful, tenebrous crime stories, each a work of art all its own but yet part of something greater than the sum of its parts. This is a mammoth work, especially in the world of pulp’s tight page counts, and it doesn’t have any noticeable sagging as with some large literary endeavors.
Eyeballing its core characters with a scope both broad and intimate, this trilogy provides a strong stare into three micro-cosmoses, each a distinct product of a time and a place, as well as a macroscopic overview of change and deterioration on a broad scale but on many intimate levels. Poor Chloe and Shem, for whom the reader develops real empathy despite the pair’s fatal flaws, are the tour guides on this trek through culture as both geography and time shift. External societal changes roll across the story’s timeline and the inner workings of family and mind are illuminated thanks to Winter’s piercing insight into the thoughts and actions of these characters as they scurry through her pages of premium prose.