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the complete review - fiction
The Twenty-Year Death
Ariel S. Winter
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B+ : neat idea, quite well executed -- and solid mysteries in their own right
See our review for fuller assessment.
From the Reviews:
- "His solution -- to build one long narrative out of three smaller ones -- is ingenious, not least because he never loses sight of the requirements of the genre. Rather, he embraces them, framing the book through three representative voices (the Belgian writer Georges Simenon, as well as Chandler and Thompson) to develop a story that is also a reflection on the history of noir. (...) Each segment can be read as a novel in its own right, but the beauty of Winter's construction is the way it allows him to push the boundaries of these narratives." - David L. Ulin, The Los Angeles Times
- "All three novels are beautifully built and sturdy enough to stand on their own. But thereís something seductive, even a little sinister, about Winterís grand conceptual design of recurring faces and interlocking themes -- like some glittering spider web that catches the eye of an admiring fly." - Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times Book Review
- "This is a bold, not to say supremely cheeky, conceit -- and if Winter hasnít completely channeled the hard hearts and gimlet styles of these dark, departed legends, the good news is that he delivers something even better: a hell of a lot of fun. (...) The stories work wonderfully well individually, but taken together create a tapestry of associations and reflections, sort of like mirrors trained on other mirrors. The whole, as they say, is greater than the sum of its parts. (...) Though thereís clearly something meta (not to say postmodern) about the whole endeavor, Winter never loses touch with his genre heart; the books practically radiate grassroots passion." - J.I.Baker, Publishers Weekly
- "The final book, narrated by Shem, is as dark as could be imagined and the whole is undoubtedly an original tour de force." - Sarah Curtis, Times Literary Supplement
- "These stories arenít parodies or satires, but Winter is clearly having fun playing up each writerís mannerisms and motifs. But for all the brilliance of these literary impressions, does Winter offer some deeper understanding or appreciation of Simenon, Chandler and Thompson -- or is the mimicry just gimmickry ? Iíd lean heavily in Winterís favor there." - Art Taylor, The Washington Post
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
The Twenty-Year Death is three (separate) novels in one volume, an unusual triptych that also fits together to form a single work.
Set in 1931, 1941, and 1951, the three subsidiary novels are most obviously connected by two recurring characters, a husband and wife who play increasingly significant roles in the stories, even as their situations are radically changed from one volume to the next.
The Twenty-Year Death is also a three-way pastiche-cum-homage novel, as each of the three sections is written in imitation of arguably the leading -- or certainly most representative -- mystery-thriller author of the time and place it is set.
The first novel, Malniveau Prison, set in 1931 France, is a police procedural of the Georges Simenon sort.
The second, The Falling Star, is set in 1941 California and narrated by a private eye meant to be straight out of Raymond Chandler.
The final one, Police at the Funeral, is set in 1951 and narrated by the one-time successful novelist, failed screenwriter -- and failed husband, twice over -- Shem Rosenkrantz, who had also figured in the previous two stories; this novel is entirely Jim Thompson.
Those are some formidable footsteps to try to follow in -- and to take on all three in one go, even if it is in such separated stories, is very ambitious indeed.
It can't come as any surprise to find that success is only partial -- but, that said, Winter's efforts are consistently solid and, more importantly, the results surprisingly rewarding.
No, Winter isn't able to let his story unfold with Simenon's almost off-hand ease, or recreate Chandler's stylized patter, or spin a black, black story quite as harrowingly as Thompson; fortunately, too, he seems well aware of just how much he is capable of and almost never forces the issue (as, for example, so many Chandler imitators painfully do).
So these three novels may feel slightly pale compared to the masters' originals, but they're pretty damned good on their own -- the echo of the masters an agreeable added layer to them, if that's not what you're after first and foremost.
Shem Rosenkrantz is considerably older than his French wife, born Clotilde-ma-Fleur Meranger and a mere then-nineteen-year-old (if that ...) in 1931, but he's already a well-known American author -- and explosive drunk -- when the couple is living in the quiet French town of Verargent.
Shem seems to have wanted to get away from it all in moving here, but one thing that he wound up closer to than he might have wished was Clotilde's father, incarcerated nearby in Malniveau prison.
His wife told him that she had broken off all contact with her father, but it turns out that she was still in occasional contact with him.
And among the things he mentioned was that someone had recently been killed in prison.
Hardly unusual, but .....
Chief Inspector Pelleter arrives in town on business, summoned by another prisoner who claimed to have some information; his tips so far had always paid off, so Pelleter ventures to the quiet town -- which suddenly isn't so quiet after the body of a prisoner is found there.
All sorts of questions are raised -- beginning with how the prisoner got out (no one from the prison had alerted the authorities about any escapees) -- and Pelleter finds himself investigating, along with the local chief of police, Letreau.
There seem to be some funny goings-on at the prison -- a world unto itself which can't quite keep outside interest at bay, once the bodies start surfacing .....
With the warden having hastily gone off on vacation and his none too helpful assistant Fournier making life difficult for everyone, as well as minor local crises that may or may not be related to the case at hand -- the disappearance of two boys, the disappearance of Clotilde ... -- Pelleter has his work cut out for him.
Methodically, however, he works his way forward, with the help of at least some competent local police officers, and figures out the whole sad and messy situation, with justice served, in a manner of speaking, and yet just enough of a sour and world-weary undertone to it all to avoid presenting a too nice and neatly tied up ending.
Yes, a conclusion Simenon would wholeheartedly have endorsed.
A decade later, The Falling Star finds Shem and his wife in San Angeles, with Shem a failing screenwriter who has a girl on the side, and Clotilde-ma-Fleur transformed into 'Chloë Rose', a movie star who had: "displaced champagne as America's favorite French import".
This novel is narrated by private investigator Dennis Foster, who still comes across like a cop to pretty much every seedy character he encounters but had too much integrity to thrive or even just last in a culture where everyone can be bought and studio's still had enough power to make sure their stars got treated just right, even when they did very wrong.
Hired to keep an eye on Chloë, Foster quickly stumbles onto a recently murdered woman -- the one Shem was involved with -- and it won't be the last body he stumbles across.
If not quite by the book, he still follows protocol and calls the murders in.
The police don't want him digging around in what becomes their business, but no matter what he does he finds himself knee-deep in it -- and sinking fast.
The appealingly jaded narrator and the behind-the-scenes Hollywood scenes -- movie-stars houses, studios, racetracks, and the seedier sides, bars, and elements of town -- make for a nice picture of glamorous but corrupt times.
Foster, who can't help himself in trying to figure out the complex mess he finds himself a tossed-aside pawn in, is an agreeable narrator, and the cast of characters he comes across a nice, broad spread, from the entirely honorable and genuine to those with too much power for their own (and other folks') good.
It all makes for an entirely enjoyable story.
Perhaps the greatest weakness of the trilogy is in its two recurring characters.
In the first two novels, Shem does little more than storm in and out of scenes, a belligerent drunk.
Clotilde/Chloë is given a bit more to do -- and suffers for it -- and by the end of The Falling Star has been shipped out of sight.
There she remains, also, in the final novel, Police at the Funeral, in which she is much on Shem's mind, but has only some words to say, over the telephone, a few times over the course of the story.
Shem, at least, gets to come into his own in the final novel, as he is the one narrating the story.
Completely down and out, he has traveled cross-country in 1951 to come to the reading of his first wife's will.
He's traveling with his paramour, Vee -- whom he has more or less pimped out to a gangster, who is the one paying for their stay -- and while he has been sober for a while now that doesn't last much longer.
His former wife left a fortune behind, but that's all going to their son, Joseph, from whom Shem has long been very much estranged.
Shem would like to make amends of sorts, but Joseph isn't having any of that.
At least his sweet fiancée wants to try to help.
The thing is, Shem was really hoping to get at least some money.
He's washed up as an author -- "I hadn't written a single sentence in years" -- and desperate to see that Chloë gets what she deserves.
Vee, who has to be wondering what she's doing with this schlub, responds to his yammering:
If he's hurting you so badly, I'll tell you what to do.
That way he's out of your hair, and the money is yours.
Okay, she doesn't really mean he should do that, and however desperate Shem is, he's at least a decent enough guy that he couldn't really bring himself to do that.
Not kill his son, anyway -- though as it turns out, his decency only extends so far.
But things have a way of happening, and Shem soon finds his situation has gotten considerably more complicated.
Throw in the fact that Vee also has a bit of backstory he's unfamiliar with, and that those gambling debts Shem has back in San Angeles have been sold on to someone who is in a much better position to collect and he finds that he's tantalizingly/troublingly close to both being set for life and to getting himself killed, one way or another.
The fact that a budding writer helps inspire his own muse and gets him at least penciling (if not penning) some words again, and he really finds himself between some very high highs and low lows.
Given the Jim Thompson inspiration, it's no surprise the kind of bang the story ends with.
If it's disappointing that Shem and Clotilde/Chloë are only secondary characters in the first two novels, so too Shem can't quite handle his star turn.
That's okay, in a sense -- he's a loser, and here he gets to lose on the grandest scale -- and it's not really his fault.
The Thompson-imitation was always going to be the most difficult one.
The triptych moves from the omniscient third-person narrator of Malniveau Prison to the more intimate first-person narrator of The Falling Star, but in both of these the central characters are investigators, outsiders who are only partially involved in the goings-on and trying to unravel them; in Police at the Funeral Shem is right in the thick of almost everything -- and that's much more difficult to present.
In the first two novels the worst of the violence is also off-scene.
There are dead bodies, but they are dead when they are presented to the reader.
In Police at the Funeral, not so much .....
The violence that is described and presented escalates across the three novels (and in the final one Shem is very much in the middle of the worst of it), and that too is hard to pull off well; Winter certainly seems more comfortable in presenting the after-the-fact consequences than the actual physical confrontations.
In part it's also that Winter doesn't seem quite as comfortable with Shem-as-narrator: one of the things that makes Thompson great is his ability to present that awful waiting period, those extended times when nothing happens, even as you know something eventually has to (and that it will probably be even worse than you imagined).
Winter gives Shem lots of downtime, but even the excessive drinking doesn't help tide these periods over in any narratively effective way; the writing tends to be at its most awkward here, even as he has some decent ideas, such as talkative Great Aunt Alice, desperate for (even his) company.
Other characters seem somewhat oddly or underuitilized such as the fiancée and the young writer.
Still, Police at the Funeral makes for a decent flourish of a finish, and even if not as completely exhilarating as the originals he's based the work on, Winter's three-part ride is a whole lot of fun and a very satisfying mystery-thriller.
- M.A.Orthofer, 28 July 2012
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The Twenty-Year Death:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
Ariel S. Winter is an American author.
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© 2012 the complete review
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