Review – The Twenty-Year Death
by Jon Page - August 15th, 2013
As a lover of crime fiction I was literally in awe of this book. It is a crime lover’s dream come true. It is an epic story told in three novels, each in the style of the masters of noir fiction: Georges Simenon, Raymond Chandler & Jim Thompson. Each novel stands out on its own and would be worth of a separate purchase and read but together make a crime story that is almost magical.
I have to confess here that I haven’t read any of the three authors Ariel Winter pays tribute to, which is something I am going to rectify in the next 12 months. Georges Simenon was probably the least familiar to me where as Raymond Chandler and Jim Thompson were more familiar as it obvious they are the inspiration for so many crime writers today, particularly the darker stuff that I am drawn to.
The first novel, Malniveau Prison, is inspired by Georges Simenon and is set in the small French town of Verargent in 1931. During at torrential rain storm a body is found in the gutter outside the town baker’s house. The man has been stabbed multiple times. Verargent’s small police force is not used to conducting a murder investigation however Chief Inspector Pelleter, from Paris, is in town to visit a prisoner and the nearby prison. Pelleter, who is famous for closing some famous cases, assumes control of the investigation. The murdered man turns out to be a prisoner from the local jail but he hasn’t been reported missing.
The opening story is superbly paced. Like the chief inspector you sense the mystery is bigger that first appearances and the eccentricities of the small town and its inhabitants further compound this sense. As Pelleter digs at the edges of the case and tugs each loose thread the truth is slowly loosened but justice may still prove elusive. Central to the mystery is the murdered man’s young and beautiful daughter and her over-protective husband, a famous American novelist.
The second novel, The Falling Star, is inspired by Raymond Chandler and is set a decade later in Hollywood. Dennis Foster is an ex-cop, turned private eye. He is hired to keep an eye on a movie star who is convinced she is being followed. But Foster is not comfortable in the bodyguard role and following a hunch begins to tail the movie star’s philandering husband, a now famous Hollywood writer. Instead of protecting the movie star he instead implicates her in the murder of her husband’s girlfriend. Foster is quickly fired and shut out of the murder investigation. But he can’t let the case go. He must not only clear the movie star’s name and find the real killer he also must watch his back.
The middle story is full of atmosphere. You can almost see the movie in black & white. Winter channels Chandler with consummate ease and you feel like you are reading a crime classic. Foster cuts a path through the power and influence of Hollywood and down into the darker and seedier parts of Tinsel Town to not only find the truth but also save a woman, not only from those that could do her harm, but from herself too.
The third novel, Police At The Funeral, is inspired by Jim Thompson and is classic noir fiction. The writer we have met in the previous two stories takes the lead. It has been twenty years since we first met him in a small French town. He is now a struggling alcoholic, up to his ears in debt. His first wife has recently passed away and he is in town to find out what, if anything, he stands to get from her estate. Instead his estranged son inherits the entire $2 million estate. After a heavy night’s drinking he confronts his son in an effort to try and reconcile their differences, instead the ensuing argument gets out of control.
The final story is a classic perspective story. Winter puts us right in the head of the struggling writer and we witness first hand hand his desires, motivations and regrets. In doing so we see the form of a killer take shape. We are convinced that the son’s death was an accident but the lengths the writer has to go to cover it up means that there is no coming back.
This book is a true masterpiece of crime writing and for it to be the author’s debut is a remarkable accomplishment. It shows the depth and breadth of what is possible within the crime genre and is a hugely satisfying read. And it has inspired me to visit some of the classics of the crime genre.