I really, really wanted to like this book. When I first heard about it, I immediately begged Random House for a review copy. As a lifelong mystery fan, I was immediately hooked by Ariel S. Winter’s concept: three complete mystery novels, each set in a different decade, each told in the style of a famous mystery writer from that decade, and yet all part of a single 700-page story. Seriously. A daring idea, an amazing hook, and I applaud the author for coming up with it.
Unfortunately, The Twenty-Year Death failed to live up to its (admittedly ambitious) promise. To be fair to Winter, noir/hard-boiled isn’t a mystery genre I’m very familiar with, so it’s possible this book is just not my cup of tea. Also to be fair, while I am familiar with Raymond Chandler (one of the authors Winter mimics), I’ve never read Georges Simenon and Jim Thompson, the other two authors Winter imitates. So I am unable to say how successful Winter was in either paying homage to or re-interpreting the genre, and these writers’ works in particular. Rather, I read it as a standalone book, hoping to discover a new and exciting mystery writer.
The three books within Twenty-Year Death tell the story of Clotilde and Shem Rosenkratz. In the Simenon-style Malniveau Prison (Book 1), the year is 1931 and Clotilde’s father has been murdered in a gutter, but he was supposed to have been locked up in a prison and no escapes had been reported. Chandler-esque Book 2, The Falling Star, takes place in 1941 — Clotilde, stage name Chloe Rose, is in a Hollywood movie and fears for her life, and a PI steps in to investigate. Book 3, Police at a Funeral, mimicking Thompson, turns the spotlight on Shem, an alcoholic writer whose life is basically falling apart.
Despite the overarching storyline, it’s difficult to review this book as a whole, because each story within is so different from the others. While Clotilde and Shem appear in all three novels, they are minor characters until the last book — the action is somewhat driven by them, but we never really get invested enough in either of them to really care about them as characters. The three plots are disjointed, and having Clotilde and Shem in all three books just gives the impression that they are the unluckiest couple ever.
I’m generally a fan of police procedurals, so the introspective Malniveau Prison is probably most to my taste. However, while the puzzle was intriguing enough, the story just didn’t hook me. I was bored, and after several tries, gave up on finishing this story. The Falling Star, with its Hollywood glamour and soap opera subplots, actually turned out to be my favourite of the three. The story was intriguing, but ultimately unmemorable. Police at a Funeral may have suffered from being the last story in a largely underwhelming but lengthy book. I admit: if it hadn’t been a separate story, but just the end of a single long novel, I wouldn’t have read that far. So I did decide to give it a chance, but, in all honesty, didn’t have much patience for it. The main character was Shem, who I really didn’t like, even when he appeared in the first two books. And while I don’t believe that all protagonists should be likeable, I also didn’t care enough about this man’s story to read beyond the hundreds of pages I’d already read about it. I gave up on this third novel fairly early.
Part of it may be the writing style. Winter had set out to mimic three classic writers, and while I am unable to tell if he succeeded in that, I thought that by the third book, his writing style was fairly standard throughout. I figure that even with the homage to various writers, a distinct Ariel S. Winter style still came through. Unfortunately, while his writing is solid enough, it just isn’t compelling. It’s okay, but that’s it. I do wonder how it would be if he didn’t bother with the homage at all, and simply wrote an original mystery. It’s possible I might have enjoyed that better.
Overall, a disappointment. Again, in fairness, it may just not be my type of mystery, or perhaps Winter was constrained by certain stylistic conventions to which he was paying homage. Still, the overarching story just wasn’t compelling enough to merit three separate novels within a novel. As well, and this is an unfortunate yet perhaps expected reaction to Winter’s project no matter how well or poorly executed: I couldn’t help thinking, if all this is is an imitation of three classic writers, why not just read the originals?
Thank you to Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.