Book Reviews: The Twenty-Year Death Trilogy by Ariel S. Winter

Malniveau PrisonMalniveau Prison
The Twenty-Year Death Trilogy Book 1
Ariel S. Winter
Hard Case Crime, July 2014
ISBN: 978-1-781-16793-9
Mass Market Paperback

This noir novel, written in the style of classic crime writer Georges Simenon, is the first in a trilogy, originally a single novel, entitled The Twenty-Year Death.  With or without that homage, it certainly stands on its own as recommended reading.  (Each of the three books that make up the trilogy was published by Hard Case Crime in July of 2014, with the original comprising all three published in August of 2012.)  They are set in different decades of the last century (1931, 1941 and 1951), with the 2nd and 3rd written in the style of the equally famed writers Raymond Chandler and Jim Thompson.  The whole follows an American author and his much younger French wife, as well as several other well-written protagonists to greater and lesser degrees, varying with each book.

The book opens in the French village of Verargent, with the discovery of a body lying dead in the street, a local baker having come upon the corpse while walking home after work during a deluge.  The investigation falls to Chief Inspector Pelleter and the local chief of police, Letreau.  The novel unwinds over a period of less than a month, with the case getting more and more curious.  And it begins and ends in the nearby eponymous prison, where Pelleter has been called, after a fashion, by a sadistic murderer incarcerated there for several years, Mahossier, who has in the past given him information leading to the inspector being able to close theretofore unsolved cases.  Further investigation uncovers the fact that the dead man had been a prisoner at Malniveau, and had been murdered.  As things proceed, there are several more dead bodies discovered, and two young boys go missing, as well as a young woman, the French wife of the American author mentioned above.

Pelleter has his work cut out for him, it would seem.  He muses:  “He knew what had happened in many instances, but he did not know why or how, and therefore he did not know who.  He knew nothing.”  Although newly written, this is a classic noir procedural, and it is recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, January 2015.

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The Falling StarThe Falling Star
The Twenty-Year Death Trilogy Book 2
Ariel S. Winter
Hard Case Crime, July 2014
ISBN: 978-1-781-16794-6
Mass Market Paperback

The second of the books comprising The Twenty-Year Death Trilogy, this book feels more “noir” than its predecessor, “Malniveau Prison” (which took place in France), opening as it does in the world of Hollywood, at a movie studio in what is here called San Angelo, California, in 1941. Two of the characters from Book 1, Clotilde-ma-Fleur Rosenkrantz, a beautiful young woman, and her much older, alcoholic husband, Shem, are now, a decade later, respectively a movie star who goes by Chloe Rose, and a movie script writer, both at Merton Stein productions. The protagonist in the new book is Dennis Foster, ex-cop and now a private detective, hired by Al Knox, the studio’s chief of security, to act as sort of a bodyguard for Clotilde, who thinks she’s being followed. When Foster protests that he is not a bodyguard, Knox tells him “. . . . she only thinks she’s being followed. You just need to make her feel safe. For show.”

Although Chloe had “displaced champagne as America’s favorite French import,” there is nothing celestial about her. Her husband, Shem, “looked like a stereotype of the great American author, which he was.” As things progress, Foster doesn’t like that he is “just here for show, a piece of set decoration, and not a very necessary one either. This case already had a mystery man on the set, a mystery man on the phone, the mystery man that the man on the phone was bargaining for, the mystery man who was drinking and laughing with Shem Rosenkrantz upstairs. I was one too many. I felt like I had come to the party late and got seated at the wrong table,” and that he was “hired to babysit a paranoid prima donna.” And when more than one dead body is discovered, it serves only to make his assignment more complex, and much more difficult.

The author has the noir writing down pat. There is the requisite male movie star, whose butler was “bald with a horseshoe of hair around the back of his head, a pencil mustache, and a tuxedo with white gloves.” A reference to the WPA and a woman with a “tea-length skirt” place it firmly in its era. As well, nothing in these pages reflect what we today call politically correct attitudes. And when Foster is beaten up by men determined to keep him away from the case, the following morning “I had to get undressed before I could get dressed again, which only hurt a little. No more than getting gored by a bull.”  A man who keeps his word, he will not turn his back on his tasks of finding the killer and saving Chloe from herself.

As was the first book in the trilogy, the novel is very entertaining, and is recommended.  And I now have in front of me the last novel in the trilogy, Police at the Funeral, to which I am very much looking forward.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, January 2015.

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Police at the FuneralPolice at the Funeral
The Twenty-Year Death Trilogy Book 3
Ariel S. Winter
Hard Case Crime, July 2014
ISBN: 978-1-781-16795-3
Mass Market Paperback

The last of the books comprising The Twenty-Year Death Trilogy, takes place not in France, as did the first, nor in Southern California, as did the second, but in Calvert City, Maryland.  The two characters from both earlier books return here: Clotilde-ma-Fleur Rosenkrantz, a beautiful young woman who reached film stardom as Chloe Rose, and her much older, alcoholic husband, Shem, who had achieved fame as an author, later as a movie script writer.

Time has not been kind to Mr. or Mrs. Rosenkrantz:  Clotilde is now and has been for the last ten years ensconced in a private psychiatric hospital, and Shem is now washed up, and broke.  Shem returns to Maryland for the first time in 30 years following the death of Quinn Rosenkrantz, his first wife, from whom he has been divorced for 20 of those years, for the reading of her will.  Deeply in debt, Shem has traveled 3,000 miles more than anything because he is desperate for what he hopes will be the money left to him by his wife, who was from a very wealthy family, his desperation caused by his need to keep Clotilde from having to be placed in a state institution.  It had been three years since Shem had seen his and Quinn’s son, Joe, not since his high school graduation, but they of course do meet again at the office of the attorney in whose office the Will is to be read to all concerned.

The presence of the police at the funeral referenced in the title is part of an investigation into another death which follows quickly upon the scene described above.  The book is beautifully wrought, the plotting very original, and the whole a suspenseful read (more so than the two books which preceded it, in fact) that I devoured in the space of several hours.  To say more would necessitate spoilers, so I leave it to the reader to discover and explore for him or herself.  (Just to whet one’s appetite, I will only add that this was the first time I have read a book where the author makes the analogy that “killing someone was a whole lot like writing, a creative endeavor.”)

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, January 2015.

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