BookBrowse Reviews Fortune Favors the Dead by Stephen Spotswood

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Fortune Favors the Dead

Pentecost and Parker #1

by Stephen Spotswood

Fortune Favors the Dead by  Stephen Spotswood X
Fortune Favors the Dead by  Stephen Spotswood
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2020, 336 pages

    Aug 2021, 352 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Jordan Lynch
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About this Book



Stephen Spotswood delivers a delightful debut featuring a fierce female detective duo working to solve a locked-room murder while keeping themselves from becoming the next targets.

Willowjean "Will" Parker is a jack-of-all-trades circus runaway making a little extra money by serving as a night guard at a construction site. An encounter with an unusual intruder thrusts Will onto a path she never would have expected when she ends up saving the woman's life. The woman is Lillian Pentecost, New York City's most elegant and extraordinary private investigator. Lillian suffers from multiple sclerosis, and she's in need of an assistant to help her with her case load. What follows for Will is a whirlwind education in all things sleuthing that leads to the pair investigating the seemingly impossible murder of a society matron at Lillian's own Halloween party three years later. They must follow the clues and find the killer while dealing with continuing illness, escalating threats and a self-proclaimed spiritualist who knows more than she's saying.

The main feature of Fortune Favors the Dead is the murder, and Spotswood has created an intriguing locked-room mystery that will keep readers guessing until the very end. While some of the clues fall into Lillian and Will's laps, others require clever detective work, and both women are more than capable of using their unique skillsets to get answers. The urgency of the case — will the murderer strike again? — keeps the plot moving at a fairly quick pace, but there are plenty of slower, more reflective moments that give balance to the story by placing focus on the characters themselves.

Many of these slower moments show the relationship between Lillian and Will. Although her mind is capable of incredible calculations and deductions, Lillian's body is slowly deteriorating. Her multiple sclerosis has only grown more severe in the years since she hired Will, and Will has become comfortable with and capable of taking charge when Lillian is having a bad day. This allows Will to at times act as the main detective rather than serving as sidekick. Will's years in the circus have given her a number of interesting skills of which she makes good use to hunt down clues and suspects. Capable of knife throwing, sleight of hand and fisticuffs, she would typically be seen as the brawn of the duo — which wouldn't be an incorrect assumption — but she also possesses a keen intellect, good instincts and the natural ability to blend in, making her a worthy detective in her own right. While incapacitated, Lillian is perfectly happy to allow Will to lead, and the easy switching of roles reveals the level of comfort between them. Their relationship is more than just that of partners or of caretaker and patient; they're truly friends, and the author shows how much they care for one another in quieter scenes.

Spotswood is fantastic at writing strong female characters. In addition to Lillian and Will, there are complex, independent women in almost every other role: bystanders, victim, love interest and suspects. Set in New York City in the mid-1940s, the story reflects the changing position of women in society as well as the level of freedom and exhilaration found throughout the country following World War II. The novel's female characters make the most of these changing times, not caring how they're seen by others as long as they're being true to themselves. Such choices are not without danger — Will, in particular, finds herself in serious trouble after a date with another woman — but the willingness of the book's women to forge their own paths regardless of society's rules is indicative of both their inner strength and their willingness to take advantage of the new normal. Interestingly, one female character is a Moriarty-like mastermind who will surely make an appearance in future books in the series.

Fortune Favors the Dead is a fast-paced, smart murder mystery with a focus on strong women using their abilities to make a difference in the world. The friendship between Lillian and Will shines true, and their combined detective skills keep the plot moving while also providing moments of astounding deduction that are the hallmark of any good mystery. The conversational style is easy to read and allows Will to tell her own story in addition to that of the case, an approach in keeping with the well-known sidekick-as-narrator trope (see Beyond the Book) popularized by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle through Dr. John Watson in the Sherlock Holmes series. Spotswood has produced a wonderful debut that will appeal to fans of detective fiction as well as readers interested in a story featuring a dynamic female duo.

Reviewed by Jordan Lynch

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in November 2020, and has been updated for the September 2021 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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