Book Review: Secrets Typed in Blood by Stephen Spotswood

In the newest entry into the Nero Award-winning Pentecost & Parker Mystery series, Lillian and Will are hot on the trail of a serial killer whose murders are stranger than fiction. Read on for Doreen Sheridan's review!

Willowjean “Will” Parker is coming off of the fresh high of apprehending a kidnapper with her boss Lillian Pentecost, 1947 New York City’s most celebrated detective. But there’s no time to rest on their laurels, as they must move quickly to once more pick up the trail of Pentecost’s greatest nemesis, Olivia Waterhouse. The woman going by that name is a criminal whose ability to vanish has left the esteemed detective grasping at straws. The trail goes warm again when an eyewitness report places Waterhouse in the office of the Shirley & Wise law firm. Under the name Emily Ginsburg, who worked there as a secretary for eight weeks before disappearing once more. 

Pentecost wants Parker to go undercover as a temp in the same office in order to suss out what Waterhouse was looking for. Parker isn’t thrilled; after all, she did not join the private detection trade in order to wear skirts and heels and sit at a typewriter all day. But she’s also more reluctant than usual to antagonize her boss, whose behavior has certainly changed since what was supposed to be a routine doctor’s visit at the end of a previous case:

All [Pentecost] wanted was a cursory check on her hoof to make sure no real damage had been done. But while he had her on his table, the doc put her through the series of tests that she was supposed to have on a regular basis and that she’d been avoiding for the better part of a year.

 

The tests that tracked how her multiple sclerosis was progressing.

 

I didn’t know how things went. Our relationship did not extend to having access to her medical records. Whatever the results, she came out wanting to take on every case that walked in the door.

 

Make of that what you will.

This newfound zeal soon finds Parker assisting Pentecost in yet another intriguing new case, in addition to her undercover work and the usual services they provide for the needy. Holly Quick is a highly-strung author who rubs Parker the wrong way almost from the jump. Holly has difficulty with one-on-one situations, which makes their initial consultation an ordeal for everyone involved. Parker goes through the usual formalities, but Holly’s uncommon perspective on crime makes note-taking more difficult than expected, as Holly tries to explain the problem that has befallen her:

“Oh, it’s not personal. Not really,” she declared. “No, I take that back. It is personal. Very personal. Do you mind if I smoke? No, no, never mind. There’s no ashtrays. Context clues. Have to remember context clues. Anyway, where was I? Right. Personal. Yes, very personal. Somebody is stealing my murders.”

 

I paused my shorthand.

 

“Stealing your murders?” I assumed I’d misheard.

 

“Yes,” she said, looking my way but not quite meeting my eyes. “It’s really… I don’t know the proper word. Infuriating. Insulting. Violating. Yes–a violation! It’s a violation of the most profound sort!”

Holly, you see, is a successful writer of mystery short stories, written under various and mostly male pseudonyms. In the past six months, someone has begun to copy several of her fictional murders, turning them into real life crimes. Once she became aware of the connection, she decided to come to Pentecost instead of the police. Holly doesn’t trust the cops, in large part due to her fiercely protected sense of privacy. She insists, too, that if Pentecost and Parker take the case, then they must keep the authorities out of it as well.

Soon enough, Parker is juggling the footwork for both investigations, leading her to cross paths with a host of colorful characters, including sleazy private investigators and scary personal bodyguards. Murderers lurk in every shadow, placing her in mortal peril when she least expects it. Evading one serial killer is a big ask for any crime-fighter. Will Parker be able to outwit two?

I deeply regret never having read any of the clever, queer-friendly Pentecost And Parker novels before this one! Secrets Typed In Blood is the third in the series, and I was fully surprised by the twists and turns in the narrative as Parker hunts down criminals at the behest of her genius boss, like a female latter-day version of Archie Goodwin doing the legwork for the housebound Nero Wolfe. Fortunately, it’s very easy to slip into the overall narrative from here, and to root for our heroes as they navigate post World War II New York. I was genuinely astonished by this book and fully felt all the emotional plot reversals. This is definitely a novel for people who enjoy well-written mysteries with very human and diverse protagonists.

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