Book Review: ‘The Twenty Year Death’
I’m a city reader, so I don’t bother with dust jackets. No sense accidentally ripping them just because I’m bouncing around on public transit. After I finish a book and replace the jacket though, I tend to notice things that I missed the first time. My second examination of Ariel S. Winter’s debut novel The Twenty Year Death went much the same way.
Once I put the jacket back on, I discovered a quote from Stephen King, lauding the book as “Bold, innovative, and thrilling.” At that point, I started to suspect that someone could be ghostwriting generic quotes for Uncle Stevie. Normally I trust King’s opinion on books and movies (we both love AC/DC, James Ellroy, and The Evil Dead), so it doesn’t seem right that he would endorse The Twenty Year Death. That’s because I don’t recall the novel matching his description. Instead I remember it as safe, unimaginative, and only mildly exciting.
It’s a shame too, because the narrative for The Twenty Year Death is built on a really slick concept. Winter’s book tells the tragic tale of a married couple, whose lives are fraught by death and disaster, in the form of three separate novels. The stories, which span a twenty year period from 1931-1951, each take place in a different decade and are written in a style inspired by giants of the pulp mystery genre.
Using Georges Simenon, Raymond Chandler, and Jim Thompson as his muses, Winter writes each novel as a self-contained piece with distinct detectives, plot, and resolutions. They are tied together by a writer and his wife, who move from background figures in the first narrative to take on more important roles in the second, and by the third they have become main characters.
Winter’s heart is definitely in the right place. The idea to write a book in the style of Simenon, Chandler, and Thompson sounds like a fantastic homage; it’s just Winter’s execution that’s lacking. I can easily look past the obvious structure of his three stories, since pulp novels, especially detective ones, are known for following a well-traveled formula. However, pulp fiction is usually entertaining for its complex mysteries and colorful characters, both of which are missing in The Twenty Year Death.
Each tale’s prose is as annoyingly simplistic as the mystery the detective is unraveling. By the time you finally find out whodunit, you’re never terribly surprised or satisfied at the resolution. I’ve read enough detective fiction to know that there are almost never happy endings, but the conclusions of the first and second stories are especially deficient in closure. And the frustrating thing about finale of the third yarn is that it seems to overcompensate with its intense finality.
Normally without a complicated plot, vivid characters would be there to pick up the slack. Although almost none of them are all that interesting or sympathetic in The Twenty Year Death. Strangely the only character that I enjoyed was Dennis Foster, the private eye featured in Winter’s second tale “The Falling Star.” Foster is a detective in the vein of Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, a true anti-hero who knows how crack wise and make the hard choices necessary to solve a crime.
Winter’s debut looks like an old pulp novel with its “Hard Case Crime” label and its epic painting of a femme fatale modeled after actress Rose McGowan. Unfortunately though, the book’s innards don’t live up to the hype or the work of the authors who inspired it.
The Twenty Year Death is available in stores and online at www.titanbooks.com.
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