August 23, 2012

Off the Shelf: The Twenty-Year Death

Title: The Twenty-Year Death
Author: Ariel S. Winter
Artist: Charles Pyle
Publisher: Hard Case Crime

There’s a new Hard Case Crime novel that’s got the sexy cover, the mystery and thrills, and a nod to the pulp classics as expected. But in this case, Ariel S. Winter’s The Twenty-Year Death gets even more ambitious than usual.

Rather than being just one novel, The Twenty-Year Death is three novels. And since they’re all loosely tied together, I suppose you could consider them as three very long acts if that helps explain it better. This might sound like a cheap gimmick, like “three for the price of one,” or three long acts pretending to be separate novels. But Winter takes it up another notch by separating these over three decades and giving them three very different styles of mystery writing.

Malniveau Prison: A George Simenon styled novel, fit with the setting in France and a page-turner mystery concerning a prisoner left stabbed to death in the gutter. This is perhaps my favorite prose style of them all. A third person perspective that keeps the prose simple yet sharp.

The Falling Star: Out of all three novels, I’d put my money down on the fact that most people will enjoy this tale the most. Not because it’s better than the other two, but the style is definitely identifiable to just about anyone who’s remotely familiar with Chandler or Bogart mysteries. A wise-cracking private investigator keeping an eye on a Hollywood starlet, while trying to figure out the brutal slaying of a up and coming actress.

Police at the Funeral: A Jim Thompson styled novel, meaning that this is hands down the darkest of the three, as well as the most painful novel to read. And by “painful” I mean that as a high compliment. This has true human pain and tragedy from a washed out writer who’s thrown into a terrible situation with no possible happy ending to it. Along with having traces of Jim Thompson, this also reminded me of James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity.

It’s almost impossible to compare them, because they really are vastly different. However, each one has some of the same characters and even references the past events, which goes to build up our investments in the stories. And if there is one thing they have in common aside from Mr. and Mrs. Rosenkratz, it’s that they all have suspense that keeps you turning the pages along with brilliant yet completely natural dialog.

Ultimately, The Twenty-Year Death is one of the best books I’ve read in a while. Winters takes what could’ve been trite and cliched, and makes all three books feel as fresh and innovating as they would if they were written during their respective decades. It’s a great introduction to three different styles of mystery writing for newbies, and is sure to be a familiar yet exciting surprise to mystery and pulp veterans.

Andrew Hudson



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