Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery, thriller
Series: Pentecost and Parker #1
Published by Doubleday Books on October 27, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's Website, Publisher's Website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository
Introducing Pentecost and Parker, two unconventional female detectives who couldn’t care less about playing by the rules, in their cases and in their lives.
It's 1942 and Willowjean "Will" Parker is a scrappy circus runaway whose knife-throwing skills have just saved the life of New York's best, and most unorthodox, private investigator, Lillian Pentecost. When the dapper detective summons Will a few days later, she doesn't expect to be offered a life-changing proposition: Lillian's multiple sclerosis means she can't keep up with her old case load alone, so she wants to hire Will to be her right-hand woman. In return, Will will receive a salary, room and board, and training in Lillian's very particular art of investigation.
Three years later, Will and Lillian are on the Collins case: Abigail Collins was found bludgeoned to death with a crystal ball following a big, boozy Halloween party at her home--her body slumped in the same chair where her steel magnate husband shot himself the year before. With rumors flying that Abigail was bumped off by the vengeful spirit of her husband (who else could have gotten inside the locked room?), the family has tasked the detectives with finding answers where the police have failed. But that's easier said than done in a case that involves messages from the dead, a seductive spiritualist, and Becca Collins--the beautiful daughter of the deceased, who Will quickly starts falling for. When Will and Becca's relationship dances beyond the professional, Will finds herself in dangerous territory, and discovers she may have become the murderer's next target.
A wildly charming and fast-paced mystery written with all the panache of 1940s New York, Fortune Favors the Dead is a fresh homage to Holmes and Watson reads like the best of Dashiell Hammett and introduces an audacious detective duo for the ages.
I picked this up this week because I was a bit unsatisfied with the Holmes collection over the weekend. I was still left with a taste for a bit of classic mystery with a twist – or two or ten – and for something a bit more Holmes-like than that collection.
Fortune Favors the Dead turned out to be everything I wanted, even if in the end it was nothing I expected. And that’s a great thing!
The story here is about a detective duo at the very beginning of their partnership, but Pentecost and Parker are nothing like Holmes and Watson, and not just because Lillian Pentecost and Willowjean Parker are both female.
As the story, and the case, opens, Pentecost and Parker are on the opposing sides of the law, their lives, and their careers. Not that Will Parker could be said to have a career at this point in her life.
Will is a “cirky girl”, a circus performer who ran away from home and her abusive father and quite literally joined the circus. She’s only 20 as this story begins, and it is her story, told in her first-person voice with her own inimitable style.
But it’s told from a perspective several years past the events, and Will has grown up more than a bit, as well as acquired a polish of education, courtesy of the famous detective Ms. Lillian Pentecost. Whose life she saves in the opening act of the story by throwing a knife into Ms. Pentecost’s assailant. Once the dust settles and the police are finally satisfied that thorn-in-their-side Pentecost didn’t set up the entire altercation in order to have her “associate” off the bastard, Pentecost offers Parker a job as her assistant.
Not because, honestly, she wants an assistant, but because she needs one. Being a private investigator is a physically demanding and occasionally dangerous job. A job that Pentecost is still more than intellectually capable of but no longer physically up to. She has multiple sclerosis, and the disease is progressing.
Relatively slowly in her case. At the moment. But that could change. And her inevitable physical decline will only be accelerated if she continues on her present course. Hence the need for an assistant who can become her apprentice, perform the more physical aspects of their cases, and ultimately become the lead investigator.
This is the story of, not their first case, but their first seriously important case. A case that has so many twists and turns that it practically ties itself into a knot. Only for Will and Ms. Pentecost to discover that there has been someone hiding in the shadows, pulling all the strings, all along.
Since the very first night they met.
Escape Rating A+: I loved this, but I loved it because it oh-so-explicitly is NOT Holmes. Instead, Fortune Favors the Dead turned out to be a gender-bent, slightly twisted version of an entirely different classic detective pair.
Pentecost and Parker are updated female avatars for Nero Wolfe and his right-hand and both-legs man Archie Goodwin. And was it ever refreshing to read something that was both so completely different and yet so much a piece of something that I loved but hadn’t read in years.
While Wolfe and Goodwin were a pair of classic mystery detectives of the old school, they were also different in some of the same ways that Pentecost and Parker are different. At first blush, Wolfe is the genius and Goodwin is the sidekick, just as with Pentecost and Parker.
But, like Pentecost will be, Wolfe is physically restricted to his own New York Brownstone, even if Wolfe’s restrictions are entirely self-imposed. Goodwin does all the leg work for all of their cases and then brings the results to Wolfe. Goodwin is also a licensed private investigator in his own right, and he is the one who narrates their cases, very much in his own voice and in a noirish, hard-boiled style similar to Parker’s.
Goodwin makes mistakes, the same kind of mistakes that Parker does, and for some of the same reasons. But he’s no Watson and neither is Parker. They are partners in the investigations. Sometimes junior partners, but partners and not tagalongs. One of the differences between Holmes and Watson and either Wolfe and Goodwin or Pentecost and Parker is that while Watson was not the bumbler that the Basil Rathbone movies made him out to be, he wasn’t a detective, either. The better portrayals give Watson his own areas of expertise, but they are explicitly not the same areas as Holmes. With Parker, and Goodwin before her, the expertise is in the same area as their more famous, experienced and older partner. They operate in a different style, but in the same sphere.
No matter how much impostor syndrome Will Parker suffers from along the way.
As much as I loved Fortune Favors the Dead for its detectives’ resemblance to Wolfe and Goodwin, that’s not a reason to read this book – or, for that matter, to go back to the classic. I doubt that the Wolfe stories have worn well into the 21st century, but Pentecost and Parker certainly do.
That’s all to do with Will Parker’s voice. We’re in her head, reading her point-of-view, knowing what she knows – at least most of it – and becoming part of this world through her eyes. Parker is very much a detective of the hard-boiled school. She’d rather confront a suspect than patiently work through research – not that she isn’t good at both. But her penchant for action rather than contemplation gets her into trouble more than once in this story.
It’s also Parker’s voice that makes the circumstances palatable for 21st century readers. On the one hand, she’s forced to deal with all of the restrictions imposed on her gender and class, and on the other, she’s more than intelligent enough to be aware that they are stupid and work around them. In her head she mouths off to everyone, and that perspective brings her to life in a way that we can identify with.
At the same time, the case itself smacks of the “old school” of the classic era. It’s murder and suicide among the rich and upper crust, the servants are the first suspects and the men always think that they are the ones in charge.
But they never are.
In the end, the heart of the case is a lover’s triangle, blackmail, and follow the money, just not in ways that the classics of the detective era would ever have dealt with. And all of it is marvelous. Even the admittedly clichéd operator from the shadows who is set up to be a long-running nemesis.
Fortune Favors the Dead reads like the terrific opening act of a potential series. I sincerely hope so!