In the days of cheap paperbacks, publishers sometimes printed two pulp novels in one volume, back to back. Ariel Winter has done one better, because The Twenty- Year Death consists of three novels, dealing with murders committed over the course of two decades, each told in the style of a great crime writer.
The first is set in 1931 France, hommage to Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret. A corpse found floating in the flooded drains of Verargent turns out to come from the local prison, from which there is no escape. Inspector Pelleter has just visited the prison to interview a serial killer he has arrested, and is drawn into the investigation. Among the anomalies he discovers is the murdered man’s daughter, the beautiful Clothilde-ma-Fleur, still a teenager but living near the prison and married to a successful American writer named Shem Rosenkrantz.
Maigret novels are drenched in atmosphere; their physical setting reflects the psychological background to the crimes, and Winter gets this perfectly. Pelleter cuts through, almost forensically, the many-layered barricades thrown up to outsiders by a provincial French town, even as more murdered prisoners are discovered. And his interviews with the serial torturer ofchildren in the prison put the puzzle of the investigation into a very modern context, giving Pelleter a perspective even Maigret might envy.
The Falling Star is set ten years later in Hollywood, where detective Dennis Foster is hired by an old friend working as security at a film studio. The French leading lady, Chloe Rose, is convinced she is being stalked. Chloe, of course, is Clothilde, having moved with Shem to America and become a star; but she seems to be cracking under the weight of her success and Shem’s relative lack of it. Shem is having an affair with a would-be actress, and when she is found horribly murdered, Foster begins to think he might have been set up to take the fall.
The hommage is now to Raymond Chandler, but Winter wisely avoids imitating the master’s style; it’s been done too many times, and done well too few. But he catches perfectly the essence of Chandler’s underlying tone of despair and disgust at the corruption Philip Marlowe finds under the shiny surface of Los Angeles, where even the most savage crimes can be buried if you’ve bought the right connections. Foster resembles Chandler’s earlier detectives, Carmody or Dalmas, the slightly more pulpy prototypes for Marlowe, and like them he does as much of the right thing as he can. The killings are stopped, reputations are preserved, and Chloe Rose winds up protected in a sanitorium.
Which builds to the climax, set in 1951 and written in the style of Jim Thompson, the master of nihilistic noir. Rosenkrantz, by now a drunk and a has-been, who’d be played by Sterling Hayden in the film version, returns home for the funeral of his first wife, hoping to receive something from her inheritance that will help him pay for Clothilde’s continued institutionalisation. His trip has been financed by his girlfriend Vee, travelling with the gangster who’s mistress she is on the side, and Shem faces the prospect of a reunion with his estranged son, born after he left his wife not knowing she was pregnant.
As you’d expect from Thompson, Shem’s hopes soon crumble, even as he begins working with a local journalist on a play, The Furies, which might win his reputation back. He commits an accidental murder, gets conned by Vee, and even the masterstroke he conceives to solve all his mounting problems goes wrong. It’s told in the delusional sort of first-person inebriated that Thompson loved, and as he knew, there is only one way these things can end.
That is the point, and it’s easy to miss it behind the audacity of Winter’s stylistic experimentation. These three books are indeed one novel, and the The Twenty-Year Death is not a specific murder, but the slow death of an artist, killed by his inability to overcome his own insecurities and live up to the promise of love. By borrowing the voices of these three masters, Winter latches onto a basic truth they all shared, which defines noir: love is deadly.