It’s pretty easy to write off a debut novel of 700ish pages that sets out to mimic 3 great masters of a genre. Indeed, I procrastinated for nearly a month, leaving my review copy unread while I kept pushing other books ahead of it in my never-ending reading queue. That was a mistake; this book is great.
I’m fairly new to reading mysteries, and I’m actually only familiar with one of the three authors being mimicked my Winter. He does a great job of emulating Raymond Chandler, though, and though I can’t speak to it directly, the stylization varies enough between segments that I’ve no doubt the same can be said about the mimicry of Georges Simenon and Jim Thompson.
The Twenty-Year Death is really three linked novels rather than one linear narrative. The whole work spans the titular twenty years, with each inner book occurring in a different decade (’31, ’41, ’51). Threading together the three stories are two characters: a famous, Fitzgerald-esque American author named Shem Rosenkrantz and his young French wife, Clotilde-Ma-Fleur.
Interestingly, though increasingly integral to the plots, the Rosenkrantzes, especially Clotilde, are not the primary players for the majority of these pages. In the first book, “Malvineau Prison,” Clotilde is Rosenkrantz’s teen bride, living in a village in France where Shem can work on his novels (and drink) in relative seclusion. Her father, an inmate in the local jail, turns up dead, face-down in a ditch and wearing civilian clothing. A mystery unfurls from there.
This story follows a Parisian inspector, Pelleter, as he works to solve the case. It’s a wonderful little mystery, reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot serials (and presumably the work of Georges Simenon). The less said about it, the less I can spoil. It is perhaps my favorite of the three books herein, but that is not to say what follows is not just as satisfying.
The next book, “The Falling Star,” is hard-boiled through and through. In true Chandler fashion, we’re in 1941 Hollywood, and narrated by a smooth talking private dick who’s chasing down a case not at all unlike the famous Black Dahlia. The Rosencrantzes return, having leveraged Shem’s connections (some seedy) to situate Clotilde as a young starlet, but they remain secondary characters. Again, the less said the better, for your sake.
The third book, “Police at the Funeral,” I won’t go into detail of much at all, except to say that it varies greatly (and to a satisfying degree) from the first two. This one brings the Rosencrantzes to the forefront, and uses Shem to tie the three novels, along with their distinct mysteries, into a tidy thematic arc.
It’s very good, and a very fun read. While long, the book isn’t particularly demanding. Mystery fans of all ilks owe it to themselves to give this one a shot, or at least stash it away fro their next vacation.