The Twenty-Year Death by Ariel S. Winter is as ambitious a work of noir as any I’ve ever read. Presented as three separate novels, wrapped in the same binding, telling the story of a tortured author across decades. This daring undertaking is further complicated by his literary approach, channeling the prose styles of three noir fiction legends; Georges Simenon, Raymond Chandler, and Jim Thompson. With such an innovative narrative, I feel my normal style of review too clumsy an effort, especially when paired with the elegant depth and scope of Mr. Winter’s work. I’ve agonized over the correct approach, and decided to forgo my traditional noir definition run down; instead opting for a simpler book-by-book evaluation. Let it suffice to say that his books are indisputably noir, with each defining element meticulously observed. The Twenty-Year Death is the magnum opus of a noir-loving madman.
Book 1- Malniveau Prison
Pelleter shook his head, trying to soften his expression. “You never can tell. Later, afterwards, of course, and then you wonder if you always knew.” He considered his words. “Men are capable of anything.”
A small town in France in 1931, a dead body and a missing person– a classic noir opener to stage act one of the novel. Chief Inspector Pelleter, a cigar smoking veteran from the city, must expose the filthy underbelly of pristine Verargent while challenging shy citizens who like their secrets buried. A complex tapestry emerges, composed of Simenon-esque methodical stitchwork, and two seemingly unimportant side characters shift into focus; A boozing American author, Shem Rosenkrantz, and his very young French wife, Clotilde-ma-Fleur. Winter’s treatment of the narrative is impressive, his channeled Simenon convincing if not perfect.
“I’m just about finished with the case.”
She looked at him then, but it didn’t look as though she saw him. “It doesn’t matter.”
“It might not. But for the living, it’s all we can ever do.”
Book 2- The Falling Star
I had been hired to babysit a paranoid prima donna, and I had ended up finding a dead woman cut almost to pieces. For some reason, I felt as though I hadn’t done a very good job.
Ten years pass, and Shem and his french wife (who now goes by Chloe Rose) have become permanent fixtures in Hollywood. He’s a quickly sinking author, now spending his evaporating talent writing for porn-rags, while living large on Chloe’s widespread fame as a golden-era film starlet. The narrator is another investigator, this time a private eye named Dennis Foster, hired to investigate claims that Chloe is being stalked. What he uncovers is a climate of corruption and scandal that too many who want him out of. Written in the metaphor heavy style of Raymond Chandler, even the plot feels like genuine imitation; Foster a carbon-copy of the incorruptible Phillip Marlowe. The Falling Star is an homage to powerful men in their prime, and how they become victims of their own success and desires. Trying themes of adultery, homosexuality, pornography, violence, and murder coalesce in a novel that feels straight from Chandler’s pen.
Gilplaine moved his mouth like he had just tasted something sour. “My men tell me you tried to bring a gun into my club.”
I shrugged. “I thought I might need it.”
“And what do you think now?”
“I was right.”
Book 3- Police at the Funeral
She faked shock, raising her hand to her mouth in the perfect oops pose. “I’m not that kind of girl,” she said, and then she made herself ugly by laughing.
Another ten years pass, and we’re nearing the only possible conclusion; the inevitable one that keeps us turning the pages and feeds the gloomy pit in our guts. 1951, and Shem Rosenkrantz is our narrator. He’s a picture of paranoia, on and off the wagon and bleeding from debt, a pattern that perpetually forces him into greater feats of lunacy. His deranged wife is now a shut-in at the Enoch White Clinic in California, but Shem’s back home in Calvert Maryland– attending to the will of his recently dead ex-wife Quinn, desperate for a piece of her inheritance. Forget the family- man slant–he’s brought along his prostitute girlfriend Vee, and you can bet her eye is on the dough while she’s working the week for the local mob boss. When Shem sees his son Joe for the first time in years, he realizes that he’s more desperate for his affection than anything else- a yearning that may not be fulfilled this late in his life. Act 3 in The Twenty-Year Death is the darkest tonally of the trio, and Shem’s pained narration is loaded with gravitas. I felt that Police at the Funeral was vaguely Brubaker-ian (new word anyone?)– we watch Shem make poor decision after poor decision, and his self destructive choices constrict all hope from the plot.
“All you care about is that somebody’s read your damn books. Well nobody has.”
She said that just to hurt me. And it worked every time. We were like a broken record, having the same fight over and over, and still each word squeezed me tighter and tighter.
Upon completing all three novels, the final product felt magnetic and beautiful– a torturous picture of a life destroyed. Police at the Funeral was my personal favorite, but Malniveau Prison and The Falling Star were essential to its construction. Each novel added to the last, strangely without feeling like sequels, each a self contained and wildly different narrative. Cheers to Mr. Winter on what is sure to be considered an instant noir fiction classic. He spent so much time imitating the prose stylings of different authors, I can’t wait to read his own.