Review: Murder Under Her Skin by Stephen Spotswood

Review: Murder Under Her Skin by Stephen SpotswoodMurder Under Her Skin (Pentecost and Parker, #2) by Stephen Spotswood
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery, suspense, thriller
Series: Pentecost and Parker #2
Pages: 368
Published by Doubleday Books on December 7, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Someone's put a blade in the back of the Amazing Tattooed Woman, and Willowjean "Will" Parker's former knife-throwing mentor has been stitched up for the crime. To uncover the truth, Will and her boss, world-famous detective Lillian Pentecost, travel south into a snakepit of old grudges, small-town crime, and secrets worth killing for.

New York, 1946: The last time Will Parker let a case get personal, she walked away with a broken face, a bruised ego, and the solemn promise never again to let her heart get in the way of her job. But she called Hart and Halloway's Travelling Circus and Sideshow home for five years, and Ruby Donner, the circus's tattooed ingenue, was her friend. To make matters worse the prime suspect is Valentin Kalishenko, the man who taught Will everything she knows about putting a knife where it needs to go. To uncover the real killer and keep Kalishenko from a date with the electric chair, Will and Ms. Pentecost join the circus in sleepy Stoppard, Virginia, where the locals like their cocktails mild, the past buried, and big-city detectives not at all. The two swiftly find themselves lost in a funhouse of lies as Will begins to realize that her former circus compatriots aren't playing it straight, and that her murdered friend might have been hiding a lot of secrets beneath all that ink. Dodging fistfights, firebombs, and flying lead, Will puts a lot more than her heart on the line in the search of the truth. Can she find it before someone stops her ticker for good? Step right up! Murder Under Her Skin is a delightfully hardboiled high-wire act starring two daring heroines dead set on justice.

My Review:

The first book in this series, Fortune Favors the Dead, opened the partnership between private investigator Lillian Pentecost and former ‘cirky girl’ Willowjean Parker with Parker throwing a knife into the back of the man attempting to assault Pentecost.

The story in Murder Under Her Skin takes Will Parker, along with Lillian Pentecost, back to the place where Will learned how to throw that knife with intent, aim and a whole lot of nerve.

Will’s former mentor, the knife thrower Valentin Kalishenko, has been accused of murdering one of Hart and Halloway’s Travelling Circus and Sideshow’s sideshow attractions. Ruby Donner, the circus’ “Amazing Tattooed Woman”, is dead. With one of Kalishenko’s knives in her back.

The evidence is all circumstantial, but the local townspeople would much rather that someone in the circus killed one of their own rather than one of the townspeople being accused. The circus performers, one and all, are just as certain that whatever happened, Kalishenko didn’t do it.

The man left his knives everywhere. Anyone could have picked one up to strike the fatal blow. But Kalishenko has no alibi. He doesn’t even remember where he spent the night – only that he spent it in an alcoholic blackout.

A not uncommon event – but an exceedingly inconvenient one. At least for Kalishenko.

The circus’ owner asks for Lillian Pentecost’s help in figuring out who really done it. A help that Pentecost feels duty-bound to provide after the events in the previous book. Will wants to help her former mentor, and needs to help get her friends, her former found family, out of the jam they are in. And just wants justice for Ruby.

Along the way, Will discovers that her home in the circus was the kind of home that you can’t go back to again. She can and does help, even though the discovery that she’s no longer a member of the family breaks her heart.

Escape Rating A+: The Pentecost and Parker series, or at least this particular entry in it, is one of the most satisfying but also most unexpected book babies ever. If Rex Stout’s classic Fer-de-Lance (the first Nero Wolfe book) had a book baby with Phryne Fisher, particularly Blood and Circuses, the resulting book would be Murder Under Her Skin.

The comparison with Fer-de-Lance struck me in the first book because the setup of the partnership is so similar. Will becomes the legwoman and principal “active” investigator for Lillian Pentecost in much the same way that Archie Goodwin does for Nero Wolfe. The difference is that one could claim that Wolfe’s desire not to stir from his New York brownstone feels voluntary, while Lillian Pentecost’s continuing battle against the onset of multiple sclerosis is a cup she would gladly pass if only she could.

Wolfe won’t go out and Pentecost shouldn’t go out but the result is the same. Being a private detective requires that someone go out and tail suspects, occasionally fight with evildoers, and have clandestine meetings whose location can’t be dictated or controlled. Will Parker takes care of all those things for Lillian Pentecost and whatever else her boss needs to can’t quite manage for herself no matter how much she wishes she could.

But this case takes Pentecost out of her familiar Boston home and haunts while pulling Parker back to hers. It’s not just that the circus is currently stopped in the tiny town of Stoppard, Virginia, but that the circus was Parker’s home and refuge for years. She knows these people and they know her, both for good and for bad.

The case has more facets than it first appears – which is what made it so marvelously convoluted to follow.

Ruby was murdered, Kalishenko was stitched up. It’s up to Pentecost and Parker to prove it. Then the case gets bigger and wider as it’s revealed that the failing circus was in Stoppard because it’s the place where Ruby grew up. Meaning that she knew everyone in town and everyone knew her. And that she might have left both friendships and grudges behind her.

Even that isn’t complicated enough, as the more Will digs into Ruby’s past and the circus they both once called home, the more threads and tendrils reach out to faraway places and very dangerous people.

In the end the case is considerably larger than anyone ever expected. And that’s what made the unravelling of it so much hard-boiled noir-ish fun to follow.

Lillian Pentecost and Willowjean Parker have turned out to be a fascinating and delightful pair of hard-boiled investigators. Fortune Favors the Dead was utterly marvelous and Murder Under Her Skin continues that streak. I hope they have plenty more mysteries to solve in the future!

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