Fortune Favors the Dead by Stephen Spotswood
Circus-trained Willowjean Parker and erudite Brooklynite Lillian Pentecost become a team ferreting out murder most foul in the most entertaining way possible. A welcome addition to the mystery reader’s world that should not be missed.
I’ve found a new literary friend; Willowjean Parker. Butch, feisty, smart-mouthed, intelligent, knife-throwing, courageous and headstrong, she is assistant to Lillian Pentecost, an enigmatic, tragic, brilliant private investigator who lives in post-WWII Brooklyn. Seems a lot of adjectives with which to saddle two characters, but they’re all that and more. Stephen Spotswood has created what I fervently hope will be the first in a series of tales about these two who not only root out criminals but act on behalf of women in need of their help.
The first-person narrative works well for this young woman, trained in arcane arts at a circus where she found a home at age 15. Not only has she seen a large slice of life, but one that has taught her to keep her wits about her and trust only those who prove themselves, useful traits for an investigator venturing into dangerous waters. Her dialogue is delightful and genuine and sometimes borderline genius (“she threw me a look that long-suffering aunts could rent out by the hour”). Hardboiled, but in an intriguing way, this is better, in my opinion, than the bog-standard tough guy type of fiction.
Her boss, Lillian Pentecost, is a Mensa-level private eye with a long view and a memory that goes back decades. A disability requires her to employ an assistant to do the literal legwork, much in the mold of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, of whom I am frequently reminded while reading about this duo. Each has talents and flaws that seem to complement the other, filling the gaps between attitudes experience and intellect. A formidable partnership to be sure.
A twisted and complex series of mysteries spread over many years comes to a head with the murder of a socialite at a séance arranged by herself and at which a sinister medium has given uncanny readings of the attendees. Pentecost and Will (as we now know her) are thrust into the midst of the peril presented by an unknown murderer and the every-present police who are unsure whether our heroines are criminally involved or not. The dual threats of murder and incarceration frame their activities and add suspense.
This is an altogether delightful reading experience and one which I hope presages more of the same in future. Willowjean and Lillian are, I think, destined to become classic characters of the genre.