Review: Secrets Typed in Blood by Stephen Spotswood

Review: Secrets Typed in Blood by Stephen SpotswoodSecrets Typed in Blood: A Pentecost and Parker Mystery by Stephen Spotswood
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Series: Pentecost and Parker #3
Pages: 384
Published by Doubleday Books on December 13, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books

In the newest entry into the Nero Award-winning Parker & Pentecost Mystery series (my new favorite sleuthing duo-- Sarah Weinman, The New York Times Book Review), Lillian and Will are hot on the trail of a serial killer whose murders are stranger than fiction.

New York City, 1947: For years, Holly Quick has made a good living off of murder, filling up the pages of pulp detective magazines with gruesome tales of revenge. Now someone is bringing her stories to life and leaving a trail of blood-soaked bodies behind. With the threat of another murder looming, and reluctant to go to the police, Holly turns to the best crime-solving duo in or out of the pulps, Willowjean "Will" Parker and her boss, famed detective Lillian Pentecost.
The pair are handed the seemingly-impossible task of investigating three murders at once without tipping off the cops or the press that the crimes are connected. A tall order made even more difficult by the fact that Will is already signed up to spend her daylight hours undercover as a guileless secretary in the hopes of digging up a lead on an old adversary, Dr. Olivia Waterhouse.
But even if Will is stuck in pencil skirts and sensible shoes, she's not about to let her boss have all the fun. Soon she's diving into an underground world of people obsessed with murder and the men and women who commit them. Can the killer be found in the Black Museum Club, run by a philanthropist whose collection of grim murder memorabilia may not be enough to satisfy his lust for the homicidal? Or is it Holly Quick's pair of editors, who read about murder all day, but clearly aren't telling the full story?
With victims seemingly chosen at random and a murderer who thrives on spectacle, the case has the great Lillian Pentecost questioning her methods. But whatever she does, she'd better do it fast. Holly Quick has a secret, too and it's about to bring death right to Pentecost and Parker's doorstep.

My Review:

The first book in the Pentecost and Parker series, the utterly marvelous Fortune Favors the Dead, won the 2021 Nero Award for “the best American Mystery written in the tradition of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe stories.” And it’s probably the most on-the-nose recipient of the award since it was won by Murder in E Minor by Robert Goldsborough, which was an actual Wolfe story.

Why? Because Pentecost and Parker are very much in the style of Nero Wolfe and his right hand – and frequently leg-man Archie Goodwin, along right along with their shared East Coast brownstone setting.

One of the many eccentric things about Wolfe was that he endeavored to never leave the brownstone. Goodwin went everywhere for him, gathered all the clues and evidence at his boss’ behest, and then genius Wolfe put it all together.

Wolfe could leave the brownstone, he just very strongly preferred not to and was more than enough of a genius that he generally got his way.

Lillian Pentecost, on the other hand, probably shouldn’t leave her brownstone nearly as much as she does. She has multiple sclerosis, MS, and the progressive disease is progressing in fits and starts. She’s not going to get better and she knows it. The best she can do is hold it at bay, and one of the best ways to accomplish that is to reduce the stress in her life.

Something which she is utterly incapable of. What she attempts to do instead is send Willowjean Parker out and about as her right hand and leg woman, to bring those same clues and evidence back to her brownstone to help her put it all together.

And there’s more to put together in this case than Will Parker first has a handle on, starting with the client. On a case that Parker can’t even figure out why Ms. Pentecost took. Along with the reason her boss is willing to not just put up with but actually honor all the very strange and downright hamstringing conditions that said client wrapped around it.

Holly Quick writes crime stories. As those are just the kind of thing that Will Parker likes to read, it’s not a surprise that Parker has read quite a few of Quick’s stories, even if she didn’t know Quick was writing them.

In the 1940s, writing crime stories was not exactly a field open to women. (Rather like writing science fiction stories.) The pulp magazines of the time knew better than to present a whole bunch of blood and guts under a female byline. So they didn’t. In fact, Holly Quick wrote under a veritable plethora of pen names, both to disguise how much of a single issue was actually the product of a single pen, and to let readers believe that all those stories about evil lurking in the hearts of men were written by one.

But Holly Quick had a third reason for hiding her identity – one that Lillian Pentecost sees immediately but that Will Parker has not yet sussed out. And it’s that hidden reason that convinces Pentecost to take the case, and keeps her from keeping her partner as informed as she should be about what they are really investigating.

What they have is fascinating enough. Someone is taking Holly’s stories and re-enacting them as real murders. To paraphrase Ian Fleming, “Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action,” or in this case the pattern of a serial killer.

The question is whether Pentecost and Parker can figure out who is doing it without letting Holly Quick’s real secret out of its old and rather fraying bag. Or whether it’s already too late – whether for one, the other or both.

Escape Rating A-: Both of Pentecost and Parker’s previous cases, Fortune Favors the Dead and Murder Under Her Skin, have dealt rather explicitly with Parker’s past as an abused child who literally ran away and joined the circus. It’s the knife-throwing skills she learned there that saved Pentecost’s life and led to their partnership.

But by this point in Parker’s life, she is fully invested in her career with Pentecost as a licensed private detective. Which doesn’t mean that she doesn’t still suffer from impostor syndrome when Pentecost starts keeping secrets about the case from her. Because we view the story from inside Parker’s head, her discomfort and self-doubts become ours, and make the middle of the case a bit hard to read.

(I desperately wanted to be reassured that all would be well but didn’t want to spoil the ending. Fortunately, the worst of that bit didn’t last long and then it was off to the races – against death – again.)

What made this case interesting wasn’t the obvious case. The whole ‘life imitates art imitates life’ thing, where a serial killer recreates an author’s or an artist’s work through murder is not exactly a new face on the barroom floor. It’s been done before, and countless times at that. This was an interesting take on that trope, but not a unique one.

What was interesting was the case underneath the case, the reason why Lillian Pentecost took it in the first place. And that kept me guessing not just because Holly Quick’s secret was fascinating, but because of the way she dealt with her own life in keeping that secret. And the way that Lillian Pentecost was willing to help her keep it and what that hinted at in Pentecost’s own past.

So come for the mystery. Stay for the stresses and strains on this fascinating partnership. And try not to think too hard about their cook, Mrs. Campbell, and her preparation methods for haggis – which make the backyard look rather like a crime scene. All part of a day’s – or more likely several night’s – work for Pentecost and Parker.

It’s clear from the ending of Secrets Typed in Blood that there are plenty more cases on the horizon for this duo. And I can’t wait to read them.