The Twenty-Year Death Trilogy

Created by Ariel S. Winter

“I had on my good suit, a navy blue so deep it looked black, with a pressed white shirt, a red-and-blue-striped tie, a red handkerchief, and freshly polished loafers. I’d had a shower and a shave.”
Dennis Foster calls on his client, in The Falling Star

“Yeah, I’d always gotten a raw deal, and I was too pathetic to do anything about it, and I hated myself for that.”
Shem goes all Jim Thompson on us in Police at the Funeral

A completely over-the-top and compelling read for any true crime fiction fan was rookie novelist Ariel S. Winter‘s The Twenty Year Death (2014)–a book so ballsy in concept it practically sucked the air of the room.

Like, did this guy have a pair on him or what?

Maybe its publisher, Hard Case Crime, should have included a jock strap with each copy.

A long-time bookseller and mystery reader himself, Winter cooked up one hell of a gimmick. It’s actually three novels in one, a multi-part epic that jumps from the thirties to the forties to the fifties, each novel written in the style of one of that decade’s most influential authors of crime fiction.

The first installment, Malvineau Prison, is set in 1931 in France, is written in the style of Georges Simenon, and revolves around the efforts of Chief Inspector Pelletier to solve a murder of a man found dead in the gutter in the small provincial town of Verargent. The trail eventually leads the to the dead man’s lovely but fragile daughter — and to her bookish, twitchy American husband, Shem Rosenkrantz, a well-respected writer who’s finding it hard to write. It’s a pitch-perfect impersonation of Simenon’s Inspector Maigret novels, right down the the dark bleary tone, the terse sketchy prose and the persistent rain.

It’s the second novel, though, that will really interest fans of this site. The Falling Star follows the couple to Southern California, where DENNIS FOSTER, a hard-boiled San Angeles gumshoe who’s so Chandleresque he could make a purist kick a hole in a stained glass window. He’s hired by a film studio to keep an eye on Shem’s wife, now a Hollywood starlet (Shem, meanwhile, has begun writing for the movies). Foster’s the narrator (of course) and his rat-a-tat-tat style, full of wisecracks and similes goes down gimlet-smooth. For those of you in dire need of a Chandler fix, it’s at least as good as a shot of Parker’s Poodle Springs or Black’s The Black-Eyed Blonde.

The final installment, Police at the Funeral, set in 1951, follows Shem and the missus to Baltimore, and allows Shem to narrate his increasingly dark and disturbing story. How dark? How disturbing? Well, he is trying to channel Jim Thompson, after all.

I wanted to scream at them, to tell them they were banal, that their lives would end, and what meaning did they have? How unnatural to sit in a building thirteen stories high made out of materials we couldn’t name and couldn’t say how they were made, in a block of pavement and concrete that someone had had to lay down, where once there had been only nature, and the few people hunting and fishing, just getting by. And sure, having wars. They killed each other too. But they couldn’t conceive of this, a hotel in a city. Yet somebody had, and it was so audacious as to be beyond comprehension.

A pretentious bit of literary jerking off? A clever parlour trick? A well-done photocopy lacking any originality or merit? The Twenty-Year Death was slagged as all those things, but a lot of people, including me, loved it.

The sheer brashness of telling a story that spans over three decades and covers so much stylistic territory would alone be enough to impress. But that Winter didn’t just dream it–the bastard actually pulled it off! And gave us a bold, compelling and satisfying story full of love, obsession, madness and murder that paid off in spades. Well done, Mr. Winter.

It is, simply, a must-read for anyone who takes their crime fiction seriously.

Plus, it was a lot of fucking fun.


The Twenty-Year Death was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the Shamus Award, and the Macavity Award. He is also the author of the children’s picture book One of a Kind, illustrated by David Hitch, and the blog We Too Were Children, Mr. Barrie. He lives in Baltimore.



Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.

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