By Sidney Williams
I absolutely LOVE mysteries. I’ve watched almost all the British mystery dramas I can find, and have read enough cozy, and traditional mysteries to fill over two full shelves of an average bookcase. That is why I am so excited to talk about Fortune Favors the Dead, The first of Stephen Spotswood’s Pentecost and Parker mysteries series. This series is unique in that it is a modern rendition of the Sherlock Holmes formula: there is an overarching narrative, but the stories are presented as self contained case files. I’ll explain more as we go along, but this is very cool in my eyes. In this review, I’ll give you a TL;DR summary and then expand more fully into each of the important aspects of the book: The Characters, The Mystery, The Setting, and The Conclusion.
Fortune Favors the Dead is an engaging and easy to read mystery, I consider it a new classic on my bookshelf. The mystery fits well with the 1940s New York setting, and having a couple more extremely competent woman detectives is an amazing addition to the mystery genre.
Perhaps a main selling point of this book are the leads. Both Parker and Pentecost are capable and wildly effective women. Their personalities are infectious, and they read like real people. The book is written from the perspective of Parker who’s role in the book I can best equate to a fusion between Doyle’s Watson and Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum. She is the assistant in the mystery that takes place, but she’s stubborn and often speaks with a level of brashness and confidence that Watson could never hope to match. Pentecost is eclectic and mysterious. This is emphasized by Parker being completely unaware as to why a person of interest is such. However, despite a level of separation between the two characters, their chemistry is entertaining and it really drives the plot forward. Most importantly, both Parker and Pentecost are equally important to the story and the events that take place. In my reading, Parker really did feel more like a translator and second detective than an assistant. It is even emphasized that Parker is not a “sidekick” but should be respected as the licensed investor she is. She served to provide a connection between Pentecost and the more “human” people that they had to interact with throughout the case, sort of like Watson did for Sherlock.
Backstory-wise, Parker is set up as a sort of Jack of all trades in a traveling circus. She can throw knives just as well as she can shovel manure. It’s actually really touching reading the quick explanations that show how loved Parker is by the members of the circus. Pentecost on the other hand has her backstory mostly filled in by reputation. She is a private investigator often specializing in women’s cases and posses accolades straight out of the fantastical mystery novels Parker is often seen reading in the downtime of the narrative. Interestingly enough, Pentecost has multiple sclerosis and as such walks with a cane some days. Although this last point doesn’t affect the story much, it’s interesting representation, and accurately (from my limited experience) depicts the good and bad days of the disease quite well.
As far as the mystery goes, Parker explains that it is not the first mystery that she and Pentecost had solved together, but one that did leave a lasting impact. The murder was of the widow of a large steel company, and due to it happening around a Halloween party after a particularly eventful seance, rumors about a ghost being the culprit are starting to fly. Pentecost has an unexplained fascination with the psychic present at the party and spends the first part of the investigation exploring that avenue. As the story is told from Parker’s perspective, the reader is also kept in the dark about why the psychic is so interesting. There is also a financial motive that the police are defaulting to. The widow was hoping to leave military contracts behind and of course guns are much more lucrative than staplers. I unfortunately cannot tell you too many details on the mystery as I want you to be able to experience it to its fullest, but although the pacing is a bit of a slow burn for the first third of the book, it is so so engaging. The driving storyline of the mystery provides the perfect backdrop to watching the characters interact.
Parker and Pentecost’s adventures take place during the late 40s in New York City. I’ve read very little set during the immediate aftermath of WWII in the United States, and it was interesting to see a depiction of it. New York is still a metropolis and the writing makes it feel as such, but bits of the setting is sprinkled in throughout, with no real hiccups in the story. Instead of movie theaters, Parker enjoys going to plays, instead of a cellphone she’s collecting used 12-cent mystery novels, and an insane price for Pentecost’s services is five figures. All of it feels natural, and at no point do I feel that the the historicism is being shoved in my face. I especially appreciate that a major motive throughout the story is given as investor worries over the victim’s steel company transitioning away from military contracts after the end of the war.
Fortune Favors the Dead read much like a Sherlock mystery told from the perspective of a particularly willful Watson. The writing flows very well, and I can tell that Stephen Spotswood also loves mysteries and has a lot of experience reading them. The pacing was immaculate and there were several times that I was supposed to stop reading to go to bed (realizing too late that I had sentenced myself to an 8am meeting after going to bed at 2am). Although not particularly funny, I do remember chuckling a few times, and having Parker as the narrator really let the sass take center stage. The vocabulary was perfect for what it was trying to do. Some interesting words thrown in, but nothing so obscure to break up the flow. Overall, the writing was extremely easy and enjoyable to read.
I wholeheartedly recommend Fortune Favors the Dead. The characters, mystery, setting, and writing all work extremely well together and make for a well-polished overall package. Uniquely, the story is structured like a Sherlock Holmes novel: standalone, but capable of being connected to a larger narrative, this allows you to jump in with whatever book in the series that you want (although, this is the first of four novels). I usually read before going to bed, and I found myself consistently excited to get to that point in my day. If you’re interested in Sherlock Holmes, Stephanie Plum, or just mysteries in general give Fortune Favors the Dead a shot.
A wildly charming and fast-paced mystery written with all the panache of the hardboiled classics, Fortune Favors the Dead introduces Pentecost and Parker, an audacious new detective duo for the ages.