The Twenty-Year Death by Ariel S. Winter is a 700-page hardbound crime novel that's written in the form of three separate crime novels (which are all tied together). The 1931 novel is in the style of Georges Simenon. The 1941 novel is in the style of Raymond Chandler, and the 1951 novel is in the style of Jim Thompson. I'm looking forward to reading this!
Below, an essay by the author that explains how he conceived of the novel. Following that, three short excerpts from each novel.
In the summer of 2007, I moved back to Baltimore after a year’s sojourn in New York City. I was in the grips of a crippling depression, spending my days immobile on the couch with a book, except for the two or three hours I managed to write at the library.
One of the books I read at that time was Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald, and I was once again enamored with Sebald’s first person narrator, a precise, ruminative stand-in for Sebald himself. I wanted to do something like it, so I began a book about an anguished, brooding man reading books on a couch. Sounds exciting, right?
In this book, the books the narrator read were going to appear in full: a mystery, a romance, a western, a history, a biography, sci-fi, everything. I described it as David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (another of my favorite books) as written by W. G. Sebald.
The first book I wrote within the frame narrative was a Georges Simenon pastiche set in 1931, Malniveau Prison, simply because I was reading a lot of Simenon during my long days on the couch. I moved on to the second book -- a quirky romance of sorts -- but I was quickly weighed down by the enormous task I had set myself, and abandoned the whole project. I knew, however, that Malniveau Prison was still quite good, so I sent it off to an agent. He was encouraging, pushing me to expand Malniveau Prison to a full-length book on its own, which I endeavored to do. As I was writing, I began to think: wouldn’t it be interesting if there were a series of mysteries in which, rather than following the detective from book to book, we followed a secondary character? And since I was writing in the style of one great crime writer, wouldn’t it be interesting if each of those novels was in the style of a different crime novelist? One of the characters in Malniveau Prison was an American writer, and it seemed natural that an American writer in France would next move to Raymond Chandler’s Hollywood of the 1940s. And if there were ten years between Simenon and Chandler, there should be a similar jump between the second and third books, and who was the premier crime writer of the 1950s? Jim Thompson. So, with the whole plan now before me, I began to re-read those authors over and over and over, and started to write what became The Twenty-Year Death.
By the time Pelleter and the officers arrived at the farm, the farmer and his son had uncovered the whole length of the so- called coffin.
The excavation site was no more than ten feet from the road, halfway between the town and the prison. The officers parked just off of the pavement behind a rusty truck and another auto- mobile already there.
A group of four men and a boy stood around the open grave watching the inspector and the officers approach. The pile of dark brown dirt beside them was like a sixth waiting figure. The mid-afternoon sun had burned away the morning cool, and it was hot in the unshaded field.
“It’s a coffin, all right,” one of the officers said when they reached the spot. The box was unfinished pine, imperfectly crafted.
“The rain did the first part of the digging for us,” the farmer said. He was a mustachioed man of about forty. “My son saw the wood sticking up while he was plowing, and then he came back and got me.”
“So you don’t know anything about this?” Pelleter said.
“The family plot’s back up near the house...This is good soil here. Why would I bury a body where I wanted to plant?”
“And so shallow,” one of the other men said.
Pelleter looked at him. “
I’m a neighbor. I was just passing by with my truck. I’ll help take it back into town if you need.”
Pelleter didn’t respond. Instead he looked at the two officers and said, “Open it up.”
They looked at him without comprehension, their expressions lost. They had let Pelleter take charge, and did not expect to be called upon.
“Open it,” Pelleter said again, throwing up his hands. “We need to know if there’s even a body inside, and what it’s wearing.”
“What it’s wearing?” somebody said.
The officers stepped forward, but it was the farmer and his neighbor who each picked up a shovel, and fitted the ends of the blades into the space between the lid of the coffin and its body.
Pelleter stepped away, pacing the ground to the side of the coffin, looking at the dirt as he went.
The sound of wood creaking cut the air, somebody said, “Easy,” and then there was a snap.
A car passed on the road heading towards town, slowing as it approached the site where the men’s vehicles were parked, and then resuming speed.
“Oh, my god.”
Pelleter turned back, and the men parted so he could see.
There was a body in the coffin. It must have been there for several weeks, because the face had softened, distorting the features into a ghost mask, and the body appeared caved in. A large patch of blood stained the man’s shirt over his stomach. But the important thing was what the body was wearing: Malniveau Prison grays.
A sweet moldy smell caused more than one man to gag.
Pelleter squatted beside the grave, and pulled the man’s shirt taut to reveal the number above the breast. He pulled out his oilcloth notebook and jotted the number down, then he stood and waved a hand towards the body. “Close it back up and get it out of there. This gentleman will take it back to town.” And he nodded at the man who had offered his truck.
The officers, embarrassed now over their delay in moving to open the coffin, stepped forward, taking the lid from the farmer. “We’ve got that. Let the police handle this.”
Pelleter began to walk along to the side again, watching the ground. It was clear that he was looking for something by the careful way he stepped, examining each inch of dirt before moving forward.
He called to the boy, who came over at a jog.
“What did you see when you found the box?” he said.
“Just a bit of white, sir. It was the corner sticking up from the ground.”
“Look again now. See if you can find anything. You do that side.”
The boy ran off to the other side of the grave, and then he also began to pace the ground step by step. The farmer and his neighbors saw what was happening, and they too began to spread out, looking down.
The officers were awkwardly extracting the coffin from its shallow grave.
Everyone looked up. It was one of the men who must have come from the car. He was only a few feet to the west of the grave and several paces closer to the road, looking at Pelleter, waving him over. He knelt.
The whole crowd approached, and the man indicated what he had seen. There was an impossibly straight line in the dirt as though the ground had sunk into a crack. The man was digging with his hand, and he quickly revealed what appeared to be the edge of another coffin.
The group went into action without Pelleter saying anything. The two shovels were brought over, and the farmer and the man who had made the discovery began to dig. Meanwhile, the truck owner helped the officers load the coffin into the bed of his truck, while Pelleter had the boy and the fourth man continue to scan the ground.
The seven-man team fell into a rhythm as will any group of men who have a large physical task before them, and they worked silently and efficiently, as the sun traversed the sky overhead. Pelleter took his turn with the shovel when it came, but he soon appeared overtaxed, and the men relieved him of the task. He smoked a full cigar, and walked far afield, deter- mined to not leave any of the coffins undiscovered. One was revealed almost twenty feet away.
Cars and trucks passed in both directions on the road, but no one else stopped.
When the fifth box was found, the owner of the truck said, “I hope this is the last of them. My truck can take only one more.”
Pelleter had the officers begin to fill in the holes that had been made, while he and the boy went around thrusting the shovel in at random points on the off chance that they would strike wood.
The sun was nearing the horizon, and the weather had once again turned cool. The two men who had come in the car said their goodbyes and left. The officers loaded the last coffin on top of the others in the truck bed.
Pelleter had five numbers written one under the other in his notebook, but one of them he didn’t need. He recognized Glamieux at once. As Mahossier had said, his throat had been cut.
“Come on, that’s enough,” he called.
The boy turned a few feet ahead of him, his spade sticking upright from the earth. The men near where the holes were being filled in looked up as well.
“Fill in the holes, and we’re going home. There’s no point in working in the dark.”
The farmer came up to him nervously. “But what if there are more down there, and we go over them with the plow? You see? I wouldn’t want to desecrate the dead.”
“But if we uncover one...”
“You let the police know, just like last time. But I think we got them all. We’ll know soon enough anyway.”
“Because we’ll be able to ask somebody who knows.”
Pelleter walked off before the farmer could ask anything else.
The Falling Star
I was just getting into my car when the front door opened again. “Mr. Foster!” Vera Merton ran on her tiptoes like a ballerina. “Wait.”
I waited and she stopped short on the other side of the car. If she had been upset inside, she didn’t show it now.
“Mr. Foster,” she said, and then decided that she didn’t like having the Packard between us. She came around to my side, the better to show me her legs. They were lovely legs. She could have been in pictures. Nobody would have complained about paying to look at her. She pulled at her lip and put her eyes in their corners so they weren’t on me. Indecision didn’t look natural on her.
“Am I supposed to guess what you want or are you going to tell me?”
“I just can’t stop thinking about Mandy Ehrhardt,” she said. “Do you have any ideas? About who did it?”
“I haven’t been asked to have any. In fact, quite the opposite.”
“How’d you come to find the—her?” Her eyes darted to my face and then went back to their corners.
“About the same way I found you and your brother yesterday. I just happened along at the wrong moment.”
This time her eyes went right to mine. She tried to cover her nervousness with a smile. “So you weren’t supposed to be, I don’t know, following Mandy, or something?”
“Didn’t you just get finished listening to Mr. Stark talk about how respectful I am of people’s privacy?”
“Yes, but Daddy would want you to tell me. It’s all right.”
“If that’s how he feels about it, he can tell me.”
“Well, what were you doing at the studio yesterday?” she tried.
“I knew then, but I don’t know now.”
She pouted. “You’re making this very difficult.”
I gave her a knowing grin. “Sorry.”
“I know that Daddy hired you yesterday and I know that you found Mandy’s body. I’m just trying to understand.” She paused for a second and decided she needed to add something to that. “It’s all so horrible.”
“Look, Miss Merton. I was hired by Al Knox, the head of security at the studio. If you want to take this up with Al, go ahead, but I’ve got work to do.” To make it convincing, I should have gotten in my car, but I didn’t.
She took a step closer and reached out to play with my tie. “You don’t like me, is that it?”
We both watched her hand toy with the silk.
“You think my family are awful people.”
“Miss Merton, I don’t think of your family at all.”
“Not even now?” She had found more inches to eliminate between us. Her perfume made me think of homemade cookies, which soured both her and the cookies.
“I’m trying harder to forget your family every minute.”
“I just worry about Tommy. And Daddy,” she said. “They need a woman around but all they’ve got is me, which isn’t much of anything.”
“You’re definitely a woman.”
She raised her head the right angle. “I knew you could say nice things.”
“I can say all kinds of things.”
“Why did Daddy hire you? Was it about Tommy? You can tell me.”
“I told you before, your father didn’t hire me, Al Knox did. If you think your father was behind it, you’d better go ask him. Whatever you and your brother do is no concern of mine. Though from what I’ve seen, your brother does altogether too much of whatever it is he does.”
She stepped back then, all of her charm withdrawn. “How come you found Mandy?”
“It was an accident. It had nothing to do with anything.”
“That’s the best you can do?”
“I could do better, but you wouldn’t like it.”
She screwed herself up to say something more, but thought better of it and walked back to the house instead. She was a girl too used to getting what she wanted. Knox had warned me about her and her brother the day before, and now I could appreciate better what he’d meant. Poor Daddy. Running a movie studio wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. You might give people orders, but that didn’t mean your kids wouldn’t run all over town getting into trouble. In fact, it probably ensured it.
I got into my car and rolled down the hill again. This missing person job seemed like only slightly more of a case than protecting Chloë Rose. It must have been my advertising: give me your money, no satisfaction guaranteed.
Police at the Funeral
At the bottom of the steps, I was breathing heavily and the sweat was making me irritable, so I just said, “Ladies,” and turned south on foot before they could offer me a ride or inquire after my health. Wouldn’t that have been rich?
I made it to the end of the block, and I turned in, and was immediately sick on the foot of a tree. The heaves were strong enough to make my sides sore. Tears pushed out of my closed eyes. I pressed my forehead against the bark of the tree, both hands bracing me on either side, but it was only later that I felt the pain of the sharp bark cutting into me. I heaved again and the taste of alcohol and acid burned the back of my nose, and I felt chill even as the sweat poured off of me. I heaved and I heaved. A part of me marveled at the volume, but soon there was nothing coming up, and the sour smell of my vomit was sickening in its own right. I brought my forearm up, and leaned my head against that on the tree. The sweat soaked into my sleeve. I was lightheaded and I shivered as a pang went down my sides. I shivered again. And then I seemed to be finished. There was the taste in my mouth, but nothing was rebelling any longer.
I pushed myself up, and wiped my mouth with my handkerchief. Great job, I thought. A really classy guy. What would Montgomery think if he saw me now? It’s not enough I owe money all over the country and depend on the whims of a hard- boiled whore, I’ve got to drink myself sick a block from Joe’s house when I’ve got the crazy idea about making it up. Yeah, I was nothing but a poor bastard, like I said before, and I deserved everything I got, but don’t let me catch you saying it.
Once I felt sure on my feet, I stepped into the near-black street, crossing to the other side. There, a recessed footlight in a brick retaining wall revealed the vomit on the toes of my shoes. I stopped, pulled out my already soiled handkerchief and, leaning against the wall, lifted one foot, wiped it off, and then the other. When I was done, I threw the handkerchief into the gutter, and started south towards the less residential part of the city near the university where I’d be able to find a cab.
The lights came first, and then the lawns ended, and there was a five-story apartment house visible across University Avenue. If I looked straight down St. Peter’s Street, I could see the lights of the skyscrapers all the way downtown. The roads were empty, and the traffic light went through its pattern needlessly as, still shaky, I crossed University into George Village. Quinn and I used to hang around George Village to be with people our own age, and she knew some men at the university. Not much had changed in the intervening years. The row homes hidden by overgrown trees looked broken down and abused, which they were, rented short-term to college men who took the job of being college men very seriously.
When I got to the block where the George Village Pub was, I still hadn’t run into a cab. I was starting to feel a bit hungry, my stomach now empty after my little spell. I pushed into the stale smoke of the bar, and was comforted to find that I didn’t look too out of place. The students were away for the summer, so the only people in the bar that night were some loud and coarse citybillies and a few grad students trying to keep their heads down. I ordered a Gin Rickey. The bartender sighed and took his time getting to the hard stuff. In a place like that the only kind of orders they get are draught and the bartender gets lazy. But he made me the drink.
With the first swallow, I felt calmer. I pushed the whole pathetic incident, the talk with Mary, the puking, pushed it all away, and my mind turned to the play Montgomery and I had been working on that evening. And just like the old days, the thought of having to write more tomorrow clenched my heart in a vise. I didn’t want to; I couldn’t; the burn of vomit in the back of my throat made my stomach turn; I’d just tell Montgomery to forget it, I was too busy.
Then all of a sudden, something clicked: the Furies in our little play could die, be killed themselves, that is. The vise relaxed, and I took another drink. It’s like that sometimes. An idea at the end of the night hits, and you feel, at least I’ve got somewhere to start tomorrow. Well, I felt good about that idea, less anxious about the next day, and after two more drinks, I started to think about visiting Joe again. The idea of my hotel room didn’t strike me as any more appealing now. If he threw me out or took a swing at me, it’d still be better than the hotel.
I thought about another drink, patted my pockets for a little cash, but of course I didn’t have any, so I went out back where the bathrooms were. I pushed my way through a door marked “Exit,” and found myself in the alley behind the bar. I ran as fast as my aching body would let me back up to the next block, and when I came out in the street, I walked one block east to Caroline Street in order to make my way back to University.
Buy The Twenty-Year Death on Amazon
Mark Frauenfelder is the founder of Boing Boing and the editor-in-chief of MAKE and Cool Tools. Twitter: @frauenfelder. His new book is Maker Dad: Lunch Box Guitars, Antigravity Jars, and 22 Other Incredibly Cool Father-Daughter DIY Projects