Most debut novelists usually focus on telling just one story in their first book. It’s the typical challenge: get the story out, work through the process once and determine if you have it in you to do it all over again. And yet, Ariel S. Winter chose to tell three stories in his debut, The Twenty-Year Death, in which three separate novels come together to form one epic saga of murder, heartbreak, and gritty tragedy. As if three novels in one book wasn’t a monumental enough feat, Winter writes each novel in a different decade, spanning the 1930s to the 1950s, and each in the style of a literary icon of the era. Malniveau Prison starts the book off, based in 1931 and written in the style of Georges Simenon, in which a French detective finds himself thrust into the murder of an escaped prisoner, uncovering a string of bodies while coming face-to-face with the dead man’s beautiful young French daughter and her American husband. The Falling Star is next, in 1941 with Raymond Chandler as the inspiration, wherein private detective Dennis Foster is hired by a Hollywood studio to appease their French leading lady only to stumble across a murdered actress in the process. Despite being warned off the case by the police, the studio, some gangsters, and the star’s American husband, Foster is determined to unravel the threads of a massive cover-up. Finally, 1951 and Jim Thompson are spotlighted in Police at the Funeral, which finishes off the book with a powerful story of a washed-up writer’s desperation as he grapples with the failures of his life, including a dejected son, an alcohol addiction, a hard-edged prostitute, a malevolent gangster, and a bloody encounter that can lead the police nowhere else but to him. The Twenty-Year Death offers a lot to take in, and all of it is fast-paced entertainment with hairpin-turn mystery and iconic period style.
I was intrigued enough by the individual stories of the book, all of which are standalone novels, but as the book progressed I was continually fascinated by the way they all tied together, through the characters as well as various themes. The mystery genre itself becomes a centric point, and in the end The Twenty-Year Death feels like an epic tribute, not only to three iconic writers but also to an entire genre, a literary movement, that’s stood the test of time. The Falling Star was my personal favorite; I loved the narrative, which touched on effortless sarcastic wit while still presenting a great dramatic pitch. Foster, the private detective, was a wonderfully crafted character with an edge and humor that called to mind, and accurately so, a Humphrey Bogart type. Malniveau Prison as well was a perfectly stylized, moody and intriguing story with instantly memorable characters and a setting well-suited to the novel. Police at the Funeral felt like suffocating, but in the most intriguing, evocative way; in a way that felt deliberate, to make the reader feel as the narrator feels. It’s difficult to evoke sympathy for the main character, and in lieu of trying to do that I thought Winter managed to tie the reader to his desperation in some way, to make us stick with him until the final scene; it was overwhelmingly well done. Each story grabs hold of the reader and keeps them focused on the current mystery, setting up the perfect surprise when all of the pieces of each individual novel fall into place. It’s a masterful work, and done in the capable hands of a very obviously talented writer.
Ariel S. Winter is also the man behind the blog We Too Were Children, Mr. Barrie which focuses on the rediscovery of children’s stories by iconic writers of classic adult works; Winter is called a “literary detective” in his efforts. For a writer to immerse themselves yet further in book-work serves as proof of a true dedication to the magic of literature. Winter again proves his dedication to the importance of a well-told story – multiple well-told stories – in The Twenty-Year Death, where he has created a literary tribute unlike anything before it. This is a highly recommended read for anyone who enjoys good mystery, a touch of noir, and truly creative storytelling.
Title: The Twenty-Year Death
Author: Ariel S. Winter
Publisher: Hard Case Crime (Titan Books)
Release date: August 7, 2012
Source: Titan Books (C/O)
Buy the book: Barnes & Noble | Amazon | Better World Books
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