Book Review: Murder Under Her Skin by Stephen Spotswood
By Angie BarryDecember 9, 2021
Murder Under Her Skin by Stephen Spotswood is the second Pentecost and Parker Mystery, a delightfully hardboiled high-wire act starring two daring woman sleuths dead set on justice as they set out to solve a murder at a traveling circus.
It’s 1946 and Willowjean “Will” Parker has been the right-hand woman to private detective Lillian Pentecost for five years. In those years, she’s faced down murderers, madmen, and arsonists, just to name a few. And with Pentecost’s multiple sclerosis beginning to impede her work, Will’s started to transition from Girl Friday to true partner, with an eye to one day take over as lead investigator.
But before she was a private eye, Will had a very different, very interesting life as a member of the Hart & Halloway’s Traveling Circus and Sideshow.
I’d arrived at H&H an exhausted, underfed, bruised, and battered girl desperate to escape a life I knew would lead nowhere good. The idea of living in a world full of color and excitement, never staying in one place for more than a couple of weeks — it sounded like heaven.
I learned quick that circus life was far from heaven, but it was a long walk from the hell I’d been living in. I started out on dung duty, mucking stalls and cages and being the go-to girl for picking up whatever the four-legged members of the circus put down.
Eventually, I got promoted to the regular crew of roustabouts, did a stint selling sweets under the big top, then stumbled my way into being Kalishenko’s lovely assistant. Squeezed into a glorified bathing suit, I spent twelve hours a day sweating through my spangles as the man everyone in the crew called the Mad Russian flung knives at me.
Things got interesting when I started flinging them back.
Kalishenko thought I showed promise, so he started teaching me the tricks of the trade. That inspired other performers to take me under their wing, training me in the essentials of magic, acrobatics, horse-riding, snake-handling, sharpshooting, fortune-telling, and everything else along the midway.
In short, by the end of my time with the circus, I was a Jill-of-all-trades who could fill in for just about anybody’s assistant, as needed.
Then I crossed paths with Ms. Pentecost, saved her life by flinging a knife into the back of a man determined to kill her, and was hired as her assistant because she saw something in me.
But only because Kalishenko had seen it fist.
Now, Will’s past and present have collided with the murder of Ruby Donner, the Amazing Tattooed Woman. Ruby was one of her first friends and staunchest supporters in the circus, and hearing she was found with a knife in her back is a terrible shock.
To make matters worse, the man the local police are convinced did the deed is none other than Valentin Kalishenko, Will’s old mentor. That knife in Ruby’s back was one of his, after all, though Will knows Val always left his knives all over the place—it would be plenty easy for someone else to pick one up in the heat of a moment.
So Will and Pentecost pack up and hop a train for Stoppard, Virginia, to clear Kalishenko’s name and find the real culprit. What they find first, however, is a bevy of complications. To start, it turns out Stoppard is Ruby’s hometown, making for an expanded list of suspects; perhaps an old neighbor, ex-love, or former friend wanted to see the Tattooed Lady dead. Now that she’s gone, her drunkard uncle does stand to inherit the family farm.
Then, there’s the Bible-beating congregation of The Blood of the Lamb Church, which once counted Ruby as part of their congregation. Did one of the more zealous parishioners try to bring Ruby back into the fold to save her from the sinful ways of the circus only to give into their own sin of wrath?
“…That’s why we’re here,” he said. “To reach out to the lost. Or to trip up those who are walking the path away from God.”
Ms. P looked back at the stream of people heading in: happy families, smiling couples holding hands, children surging ahead, drawn by the music and the smell of spun sugar.
“Is the circus so very evil?”
“Oh, not truly evil,” he said. “It’s more a metaphor. A microcosm of the world, which is designed to seduce through the senses. To distract you. To wrap you up in lights and sounds and tastes. A world dedicated to the pleasures of the flesh — flesh that will go the way of all earthly things. To ashes and dust.”
Metaphor? Microcosm? I did a quick reevaluation of the preacher. He might have spent some time in the wilderness, but he had clearly stumbled on a dictionary while he was out there.
I also managed to catch a look on Sister Evelyn’s face — one that suggested she had a very different answer to the “Is the circus evil?” question, and it included words like “Yes” and “Very.”
And then, there’s the circus folk, not all of whom are being very forthcoming or honest. Will doesn’t want to believe that any of her former family could be responsible—but it has been five years. The circus has suffered severe financial straits. People have changed, and there are new faces in the colorful tents. Perhaps Ruby met her end because she crossed another sideshow performer; she was allegedly on her way to discuss something important with Big Bob Halloway, the owner and ringleader, before she was stabbed.
The only thing that’s clear is that nothing about this case is, not with small-town secrets and big-top artifice muddying the waters. Even the woman who displayed every colorful inch of her body to appreciative crowds was hiding plenty.
Murder Under Her Skin is Spotswood’s second installment in his Pentecost and Parker series, and it is just as vibrant and compelling as the first (Fortune Favors the Dead). The historical setting—particularly once our protagonists reach the circus—is very well done, fleshed out with plenty of detail that speaks of careful research.
The mystery itself has enough red herrings, suspicious suspects, and hard left turns that it’s difficult to predict just where it will lead to next, and the reveal is hardly a predictable one. But, honestly, the mystery itself isn’t the main draw of Murder Under Her Skin. No, the best things about this novel/series are Spotswood’s clever prose and dialogue, which so perfectly calls to mind the time period and the very colorful characters he’s crafted.
And while all of the characters are exceedingly interesting, narrator Will in particular remains an absolute treat. Snarky protagonists are a familiar staple of noir, but there’s never been one quite like Parker, a gender-nonconforming bisexual who should be an outlandish gimmick—I mean, a circus performer turned lady detective in post-WWII New York?—but decidedly isn’t, thanks to Spotswood’s sharp writing and characterization.
Will has a colorful past and tragedy in her backstory, yes, but she still feels like a living, breathing woman with complex motivations and desires. She’s also very, very angry, which is always nice to see in a heroine when it’s not played for laughs or as a character flaw; in Will Parker’s case, her anger stems from injustice and compassion, driving her on to be a better investigator on behalf of the victims. (Spotswood also does a superb job conveying her sexuality frankly, without sensationalizing it or writing in a way that feels too male gaze-y.)
Parker’s partner in crime-fighting, Lillian Pentecost, spends most of the story in the background; given the plot, it makes sense for Spotswood to keep Will our front-and-center heroine. Pentecost does get a couple of great moments to flex her Sherlockian genius, and though we learn a bit more about her past, she mostly remains an enigmatic cipher. But that’s not exactly a flaw of the novel; it just makes us more interested to find out more about her in future installments.
Of which I hope there will be many. Spotswood is quickly climbing the ranks of my favorite current authors, securing himself a spot on my instant-order list, and his Pentecost and Parker mysteries are a solid recommendation to any fans of historical fiction, lady investigators, or mysteries centered around queer characters.