Book Review: Fortune Favors the Dead by Stephen Spotswood
By Angie BarryOctober 22, 2020
Fortune Favors the Dead opens with a real corker: “The first time I met Lillian Pentecost, I nearly caved her skull in with a piece of lead pipe.”
And, BAM!—we already know we’re in for a thrilling ride.
It’s 1940’s New York, and our heroes are an unconventional pair. For starters, they’re not heroes—they’re heroines. Narrator Willowjean “Will” Parker is in her early twenties, a former circus performer, and queer. She’s the right-hand woman/protégé/nursemaid to the city’s foremost private detective: Lillian Pentecost, a genius in a three-piece suit who’s fighting not just the city’s criminal element but her own body thanks to multiple sclerosis.
The two meeting has a touch of destiny to it: just as Pentecost begins to find her career affected by her diagnosis, along comes a clever girl tailor-made for her work.
“You’ve got to take something into account. The previous five years of my life had been spent crisscrossing a big swath of the country, cooped up in trailers and truck beds, and pursuing a rather unique education. That education definitely did not include the regular consumption of New York’s newspapers.
If you’re thinking: How could this girl not know who Lillian Pentecost is? The most famous woman detective in the city and possibly the country. The woman who tracked down the murderer of Earl Rockefeller. Who discovered the identity of the Brooklyn Butcher. Who Eleanor Roosevelt herself turned to when someone tried to put the squeeze on.
All I can say is this: I can pick a lock blindfolded, walk a wire twenty feet in the air without a net, and wrestle a man twice my size into submission. How about you?”
From Parker and Pentecost’s dramatic meeting, we’re thrown into one of their most memorable cases.
The wealthy Collins family has had a very bad year. First their patriarch, Alistair, ate his gun in his own study. And now, during a Halloween party and séance, matriarch Abigail has been murdered in that same, locked room.
The Collins heirs—twins Rebecca and Randolph—and their godfather, longtime family friend and business partner Harrison Wallace, wish to hire Pentecost to find the culprit.
But, ultimately, it’s not the offered money nor the locked room mystery that convinces Lillian to take the case; it’s the connection to a certain psychic medium.
Ariel Belestrade, the sophisticated spiritual advisor to the Upper East Side, has been on Pentecost’s radar since the night she and Will met. She’s connected to far too many deaths, disappearances, and shady goings-ons, and Lillian is determined to a) find out why and b) prove it to the police.
But it won’t be easy, especially during a case that seems designed to baffle, where the murder weapon was a crystal ball and the one who may have had the strongest motive is no longer among the living…
“Just tell her,” Rebecca demanded, borrowing a little metal from my boss.
Still, Wallace hesitated.
“It’s going to get out eventually—you know that.” Rebecca turned to Ms. Pentecost, leaning in toward the big desk. “People already think they know who killed her.”
“You believe you know who killed your mother?”
“I didn’t say that. I just said people think they know.”
“Becca, please. Don’t be silly,” Randolph scolded.
“It’s what everyone’s whispering. They think it was our father.”
“I was under the impression your father committed suicide over a year ago,” Ms. P said. “Did your mother remarry?”
Rebecca shook her head. “Oh no. That’s who I mean. People think she was murdered by the ghost of our father.”
Fortune Favors the Dead, the first in what will hopefully be a long series, pays homage to several of the greats: the noir atmosphere and sensibilities of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, the pastiche of Sherlock Holmes (albeit the Elementary version of the character, where Pentecost’s hard genius is tempered by a sincere need to help the needy and Will is a queer, white, ex-carnie version of Joan Watson), and the labyrinthine mysteries of Poirot.
But while there are plenty of familiar flourishes and obvious inspirational threads, Fortune still manages to be refreshingly original and very much its own creature.
Much of this is thanks to its unique and vibrant narrator. Will Parker is relatably modern while still being an authentic product of her time. Her colorful background and snappy style of speaking (“A gaff watch. A fake, a phony,” she explains to Pentecost early in their acquaintance) certainly make her stand out from the crowd of typical gumshoes. Spotswood never plays her sexuality as a gimmick; it’s relevant to the plot and fundamental to the character, and underscores the fact that queer people have always existed, even in periods that have been frequently straight-washed by history books and the media.
And while the rest of the cast is populated by familiar, expected archetypes—the femme fatale, the mild-mannered professor, the spoiled rich boy, sleazy con artists, business tycoons, and brutes—Spotswood fleshes them out in fresh ways.
Every page—nay, every paragraph—is rich and compelling. This is a five-course meal of a book you’ll devour in one or two sittings.
Fortune is a layer cake of a story; there’s a central murder investigation, yes, but Parker and Pentecost also divert their attentions in other directions. We spend plenty of time following their personal and professional paths, and much is made of how society demeans women and outsiders: the poor, the ill, minorities, the queer community. Power and its abuses loom tall over everything.
Spotswood’s meticulous historical setting is further spiced up with dashes of the supernatural thanks to Belestrade, and the waning glory days of the traveling circus via Will.
It’s no exaggeration when I say Fortune Favors the Dead is one of the most rewarding and entertaining books I’ve read in years, one that fully lives up to the promise of its synopsis. Every page—nay, every paragraph—is rich and compelling. This is a five-course meal of a book you’ll devour in one or two sittings.
Put Spotswood on your instant-order list if you’re a fan of any of the following: historical fiction, noir mysteries, brain-teasers, or feminist and queer themes handled respectfully. When it comes to male authors penning feminist issues that ring true and female characters who are fully realized and complex characters, Spotswood joins Terry Pratchett at the very top of the list.
And if anyone’s the heir apparent to Phryne Fisher or Elementary’s Sherlock and Joan, it’s Parker and Pentecost. This is an adventure you’ll want to rave about to strangers on the streets. Personally, I’m already impatient for these ladies’ next case.