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The Twenty-Year Death (Hard Case Crime) Hardcover – August 7, 2012
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Amazon Exclusive: Essay by Author Ariel S. Winter
It is impossible to say when a book begins. Did it start at birth, or when I learned to read, or when I set out the first words that grew into a novel?
I am inclined to say that The Twenty-Year Death began when I took two university courses: Hardboiled Fiction and Film Noir, and Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway, even though I wrote it many years later.
But perhaps the truer answer lies with that Chandler send-up, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, my favorite movie of childhood…and still today?
What I do know is that The Twenty-Year Death is not the book I set out to write.
That ambitious book was meant to be David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas as written by W.G. Sebald. There would be a straightforward first-person narrator, a close approximation of myself, and there would be the books the narrator read. These books would appear in full, so the reader of the novel would read the reading of the narrator—mysteries, romances, westerns, sci fi, and "literary" fiction, his taste would be catholic.
I began the frame narrative, and then I wrote the Georges Simenon pastiche Malniveau Prison, a one-hundred and fifty page replica of an Inspector Maigret mystery.
I didn't stop there. Next up was a romance, a love story between the full-sized daughter of retired circus midgets and a newcomer to their island home. Oh, I was ambitious.
And the book failed.
Still I clung to Malniveau Prison. No writer, especially one young and unpublished, can bear to see his hard-earned work go to utter waste. I didn't have my novel, but I had a novella, and I knew it was good.
I sent it to an agent. It was January 1st when he got back to me. Or that is how I remember it at least, and it has the poetic ring that appeals to me as a novelist.
"I liked it a lot," he said. "But it feels like a half-novel."
That was all the encouragement I needed. I attacked Malniveau Prison, and it doubled in size.
There was talk of a series, but I didn't want to write a series. Unless…unless…what if the recurring character in the novel was not the detective, but some other side character…
The American writer Shem Rosenkrantz seemed the obvious choice. And where would a great American novelist go after France…
Hollywood, of course. And Hollywood meant Chandler. After all, I had one pastiche on my hands. Why not two?
Before I even began on the Chandler pastiche, I had conceived of the Jim Thompson book as the novel's logical conclusion. So, like a movie studio that green lights two sequels after the success of the first film, I went into The Falling Star knowing how Police at the Funeral would end.
Is this how all novelists work? Do their books rise like the phoenix from the ashes of their mistakes? I have known several novelists in my lifetime, yet only one to call friend, and still I do not know. It is how this book came to be.
Or is it? Do I really know how I came to write The Twenty-Year Death? Does any novelist know how he came to write a book?
Or is it the true mystery?
"This is a smart, audacious, finely-honed work of fiction." - Five Leaves Book Shop
"The most audacious crime-fiction novel of 2012 is also a debut: Ariel S. Winter's "The Twenty-Year Death," a hat-trick of linked books written in a pastiche of genre-masters Georges Simenon, Raymond Chandler and Jim Thompson. The work's linking character, Shem Rosenkrantz, is first encountered in France in 1931, married to a beautiful woman with connections to a killer hunted by an Inspector Maigret-like detective. Ten years later, he and his wife are in Southern California—she now a fear-ridden movie star, he a philandering author, with their travails watched by a Philip Marlowe-style private eye. Rosenkrantz takes the narrator's role for the final section, set in 1951 Maryland, where the washed-up writer, in a Thompson-like mode, returns to his hometown in hopes of a life-saving legacy. Mr. Winters's superb mimicries avoid stylistic excess and cut to the dark heart of the matter." – The Wall Street Journal
"...it’s difficult not to feel a little spellbound by “The Twenty-Year Death.” In the final oddly triumphant image of Shem — “And I grinned all the way” — I thought I could glimpse the author’s giddy glance back at his achievement here: outrageous, obsessive, playful. Such qualities should win over aficionados of the writers emulated here — and make them fans of this fresh new voice in crime fiction." – Washington Post
Hard Case Crime originals are notable for capturing the feel of pulp classics without slavish imitation—which makes this first novel somewhat unusual. Winter, a “literary detective” and former bookseller, tells an epic tale in the form of three novels written in the style of three different crime-fiction legends.
Book 1, Malniveau Prison, channels Georges Simenon as Chief Inspector Pelleter tries to deduce how a murdered prisoner escaped the prison walls. Book 2, The Falling Star, is the Chandleresque story of a private eye, Dennis Foster, who’s hired to reassure a paranoid movie star and maybe take the rap for a murder. A recurring character in both books is Shem Rosenkrantz, an American writer who first seeks seclusion in France and then squanders his talents in Hollywood.
In book 3, Police at the Funeral, Rosenkrantz takes over the narration with the voice of a washed-up Jim Thompson protagonist, and, as he unravels, we see how the stories are stitched together. This is audacious and astonishingly executed.
Winter understands the difference between mimicry and interpretation and opts for the latter, capturing the writers’ voices, not merely their vocal tics. What might seem at first like an amusing exercise for crimefiction buffs becomes by the end immersive, exhilarating, and revelatory. — Keir Graff Booklist Starred Review
“Bold, innovative, and thrilling – The Twenty-Year Death crackles with suspense and will keep you up late.” - Stephen King
“Not content with writing one first novel like ordinary mortals, Ariel Winter has written three – and in the style of some of the most famous crime writers of all time for good measure. It's a virtuoso act of literary recreation that's both astonishingly faithful and wildly, audaciously original. One hell of a debut.” - James Frey
“The Twenty-Year Death is a bravura debut, ingenious and assured, and a fitting tribute to the trio of illustrious ghosts who are looking – with indulgence, surely – over Ariel Winter’s shoulder.” - John Banville
“The Twenty-Year Death is an absolute astonishment. Ariel S. Winter manages to channel three iconic crime writers and pull off a riveting story of a two-decade ruination in which it is the things not said that somehow have the loudest echoes.” - Peter Straub
“As an old-school fan of Georges Simenon, I read MALNIVEAU PRISON with awe and delight.” - Alice Sebold on Book 1 of The Twenty-Year Death
“Expertly summoning the most sinuous strains of Chandler, THE FALLING STAR sinks you into its dark, sleek world.” - Megan Abbott on Book 2 of The Twenty-Year Death
“If ever there was a born writer, Mr. Winter is one…Mr. Winter's work is sharp, smart, original, intensely interesting and ingenious.” - Stephen Dixon
“A tour de force, or rather three different, ingeniously interwoven, tours de force. An exciting book that will make many commuters miss their stop.” - Richard Vinen
“The Twenty-Year Death is an exceptionally ambitious, inventive crime novel that echoes three classic authors while extending the idea of what a crime novel can do. The scope and versatility are breathtaking. Bravo to Ariel S. Winter and Hard Case Crime.” - David Morrell
"This isn t a first novel so much as a series of three discrete but interrelated first novels, each written (with apologies from the author) in the style of a different iconic thriller writer Georges Simenon, Raymond Chandler, and Jim Thompson, respectively. This is a bold, not to say supremely cheeky, conceit and if Winter hasn t 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 noir triptych is nominally linked by the presence of an alcoholic (but of course!) American writer, Shem Rosenkrantz, who remains largely if menacingly in the background for the first two installments before emerging (in first person) center stage in the last, best story. Set in the fictitious Verargent, France, circa 1931, the first book, Malniveau Prison, revolves around the mysterious death of a prisoner the father of one Clothilde-ma-Fleur Meprise, Rosenkrantz s beautiful wife. (Along the way, some children and Clothilde herself go missing.) The search for the killer leads to a mysterious psychopath with a penchant for torturing tots, as well as a coverup at the titular prison. In the second, The Falling Star, set in 1941, Rosenkrantz is a womanizing L.A. screenwriter on a self-destructive slide. His wife, now working under the name Chloë Rose, is a successful but unstable starlet who suspects she s being followed. A suitably laconic Chandlerian PI, Dennis Foster, is enlisted to help the troubled star but is he really being set up for a homicidal fall? In the third, and arguably darkest, tale, Police at the Funeral, it s 1951 in Calvert, Md., and Rose has been institutionalized, leaving Rosenkrantz now a remorseful has-been roiling in the tide of his boozy dissolution. Yeah, I d always gotten a raw deal, and I was too pathetic to do anything about it, and I hated myself for that pretty much sums up the self-inflicted purgatory this antihero wallows in. 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. Along the way, Winter manages to deliver more than a few winking nods to genre tropes without ever descending into the arch or the obvious. Though there s 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. No, he does not entirely capture Chandler s verbal color or masterful use of metaphor (but who does). Nor does he completely conjure up Thompson s furious fusion of horror and hilarity (but who does). He comes damn close to capturing Simenon s slick, spare procedural vibe. But in the end all these comparisons are, yes, odious because Winter has created something more than a facile feat of literary ventriloquism. He has written a truly affecting and suspenseful triple treat that transcends the formal gimmick at its heart. Agent: Chelsea Lindman, Nicholas Ellison Agency. (Aug.) Reviewed by J.I. Baker, who is the author of The Empty Glass, which Blue Rider Press will publish in July." – Publishers Weekly
“A pastiche of a legendary crime writer.” – Daily Express
“It's been 573 years since Johannes Gutenberg came up with movable type, so chances of a concept being truly original would seem slim. But Ariel S. Winter — a writer from Baltimore, has pulled it off.” – Detroit News
Top customer reviews
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I loved the book, but I still do not see the aesthetic purpose of the triple homage framework. There were so-called triple-decker novels in the nineteenth century, but this is twentieth-century category fiction, not nineteenth-century mainstream fiction. Each setting is different and, in a way, each style befits the setting to some degree, but the story could have been told in a single voice. If so, the best voice would probably have been that of the protagonist, who narrates the third volume. If the three different styles represent a `gimmick', so be it. I still enjoyed the book.
And I enjoyed the three styles. Chandler is probably the hardest to do and Winter comes very close to capturing the hand of the master. Simenon's style is flatter and starker and, of course, French. Winter captures it well but the result is still something flatter and starker (and a bit slower) than the other two. Thompson is tough to do, but the third volume involves horrific conflicts, constantly mounting threats and an atmosphere of utter desperation. Winter still has to pull off the plot and the dialogue, but the urgency of the story propels him along quite nicely. I didn't feel the kind of fractured-universe emptiness that Thompson often serves up, but that's all right. Winter's very flawed protagonist has a few redeeming qualities and the story would not have worked properly without those redeeming qualities. The ending offers the perfect combination--an upbeat tone in the darkest imaginable moment.
The first story concerns the discovery of a dead prisoner, outside the confines of the prison, in a residential neighborhood in a French village. The dead man is the father of the third volume protagonist's French wife. The second story is set in Hollywood, though L.A. has become `S.A.' -San Angelo, an echo of Chandler's tendency to call some parts of southern California by their proper names and others by pseudonyms. It concerns the death of a starlet (among others) and the French wife, now an actress, is one of the suspects. By the third novel the French wife is in a mental institution and her husband is desperate for money to keep her there, rather than force her to fall on the not very tender mercies of the state. He is prepared to go to all extremes to secure that money and he does go to them, and with predictable and dark consequences.
The third novel is the most `urgent', given the pile-driver plot. The second may be the most impressive achievement, because the mountain that he must scale is so high. The first, to me, was a little slow, but take heart. The second and third volumes more than make up for the slow start.
Highly recommended. (What's next? Another Chandleresque novel? Another Thompson novel? I can't wait.)
(As a minor aside: the plotting reminds me in a weird way of the last three Star Wars movies, where a once-juicy villain is suddenly forced onto us as the sad-sack guy we're supposed to be empathizing with.)
If you're a fan of the it's-all-hopeless-and-depraved school of noir, you'll probably dig this book. If you prefer the Chandler-Simenon-Hammett school, with one stand-up guy to root for in the weary world, you may be as disappointed as I was.
Even though this book didn't hit me as hard as I thought it would, I would still suggest that readers of detective fiction take a look at other books in the Hard Case Crime series.
Where it fell short for me the ending, by which I mean not only the last scene but the third novel. I was expecting something more original and surprising, after so long a build up - something to tie things up. When that didn't happen, I felt left with three largely separate, albeit well composed, pieces instead of the whole I was expecting.
For me, the main problem with the third novel was that I just didn't feel anything for the narrator-protagonist, and although Jim Thompson could pull off making you care about criminals, this effort failed for me as Winter never gives him enough depth to be in any way sympathetic. He has no motive but selfishness, learns nothing, and fails to illuminate.