Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Book Review: The Twenty-Year Death!

Let me try to wrap your head around The Twenty-Year Death. An ambitious first outing by author Ariel S. Winter, this weighty tome actually comprises of three separate pulp crime novels that are self-contained and yet still manage to weave together a connected, larger narrative. Each one is set in a different decade - spanning from 1931 to 1951 - and if that’s still not enough, each sub-novel intentionally imitates the prose of a famous classic crime author (George Simenon, Raymond Chandler, and Jim Thompson). It’s a mind-bending exercise in structure and style and feels like a huge undertaking for both writer and reader. And thanks to our friends at Titan Books, I have (an extremely heavy) copy!

But for our purposes, let’s cast all literally gymnastics aside for the moment. I am not well-versed in crime fiction, and I have never read any of the classic authors being alluded to. Whether or not Winter successfully creates a satisfying facsimile, or effectively expands on old tropes is not for me to say, and far better left to the most hardcore fans of the genre. I approach this book as a crime virgin, purely commenting on whether or not Winter was able to wrap me up in his story. Can The Twenty-Year Death hook a timid first-timer?

Find out what I thought... after the jump!

The short version is: it’s good. Really good in fact. I’m enjoying it immensely, which is to confess that I’m still right in the thick of it. I’ve finished the first "novel", Malniveau Prison, and am currently digging into the second, The Falling Star. In my eagerness to help Titan spread the word I’ve decided to do a first impressions review instead - I want to read and enjoy this book at my own pace, perhaps even discuss it with others who are reading it as I go - but to finish it will take at least another week I drifted from reading fiction at some point in the last few years but it feels really good to be getting back into it!

And Malnoveau Prison really does feel satisfying as a standalone work. A few loose ends are left dangling, hopefully for further explanation later, but the main questions are answered and the primary crime is solved as we propel into the next one.

Set in a small French town in 1931, in the midst of a huge rainstorm, a dead body blocks the bakery, causing a flood. At first thought to be a drunk, the truth is soon revealed to be far more sinister and visiting police inspector Pelleter gradually uncovers an intricate web of murder, deception and decades-old secrets. I’m hesitant to spoil anything as I love the way that new information continually comes to light, sometimes solving the puzzles, but more often than not, steadily increasing our level of intrigue. Nearly every chapter ends with a new reveal that spurred me to continue reading. It’s never dull and I was caught up in the mood and mystery of it immediately.

I expected a hardboiled detective yarn full of metaphor and hyperbole, but that’s just not Simenon’s style (which Winter is drawing upon here). The prose is very matter-of-fact and procedural, outlining the events in a way that is easy to digest and coloured by little unnecessary opinion or emotion. Pelleter plays his cards close to his chest and he begins to figure things out he withholds information from us, allowing to learn along with the other characters. He's certainly a man with great focus and drive, but does seem to expend any unnecessary energy. I enjoyed his quiet contemplation and found him to be a good guide for easing us into this world.

All of the character work is strong here. Although we don’t get to fully know any of them in the first book, it’s an appealing and eclectic cast which includes an imprisoned child murderer, a loud-mouthed American writer and his young wife, a trouble police chief, and an overly enthusiastic reporter. And it all feels authentic, at least to me. I’m of an age where my reference points are not classic crime novels but rather watching films like Silence of the Lambs or playing games like L.A. Noire, and I felt familiar shades of both here.

As the second story kicks in we shift to a first person narrative and cross over to America. In 1941 a private investigator called in to investigate a Hollywood starlet who is convinced she is being stalked - and it’s here that all of the hardboiled detective speak I’d been anticipating starts to seep in. The jump in perspective and style is jarring for a page or two but I was quickly caught up in the flow of the new mystery. I was very pleased when I realised which connecting characters reappear from Malniveau Prison  (granted in an evolved form from what we first saw) and it feels like there’s a lot to mine. I greatly anticipate how this choice will continue to shed further light on the events of the previous novel.  It appears to be very well planned.

So for me, The Twenty-Year Death is a success and I’m grateful that Titan keeps exposing me to things that, if left to my own devices, I might not ever pick up. It’s a broad first taste of the genre and it does get me curious enough to perhaps investigate some of the classic novels that Ariel S. Winter is drawing inspiration from. Even just to get a feel for the individual styles. And although this book may not teach me how to be a first class detective, it’s certainly heavy enough that I could repel a would-be murderer by hitting them with it.

And did I mention that I adore the cover? Apparently Rose McGowan posed for the artist which has to have been wonderful for everyone involved. It's a very attractive package!

You can find out more about The Twenty-Year Death at Titan's site here.

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