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
Goodreads

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!

Review: Fortune Favors the Dead by Stephen Spotswood

Review: Fortune Favors the Dead by Stephen SpotswoodFortune Favors the Dead (Pentecost and Parker, #1) by Stephen Spotswood
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery, thriller
Series: Pentecost and Parker #1
Pages: 336
Published by Doubleday Books on October 27, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

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.

My Review:

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!