Content Warnings: Homophobia, ableism, depictions of violence
Fortune Favors the Dead by Stephen Spotswood is a fun and engaging mystery story, set in the backdrop of New York City in the direct aftermath of World War II. Willowjean Parker, who prefers the name Will, is a former circus performer and general ruffian.
After an encounter with Lillian Pentecost, the city’s premier lady detective, she is enlisted as the woman’s right hand. Pentecost’s increasing age and worsening multiple sclerosis mean that even simple investigations wear on her, and Will is just the woman to keep her in the game.
The story proper begins with the Collins case, a classic locked room mystery, with several characters theorizing a possible supernatural element. Abigail Collins was bludgeoned to death in her office during the annual Halloween party, with the very crystal ball that was just used during a seance to converse with her late husband… a late husband who died of suicide in the very same chair she was found murdered in. The door was locked, the windows barred. Who could have done it?
A mystery story lives and dies on its mystery, and I’m pleased to report that Fortune Favors the Dead does not disappoint. Spotswood has woven a complex and engaging story that nevertheless feels inevitable by the time that all the pieces are in place. I’m pleased that I was able to predict a few of the big reveals, but several were just out of my reach, though clear in hindsight. The mystery left me feeling satisfied, not frustrated or foolish, and that is one of its biggest successes.
Where the story really shines, however, is with the detectives. Lillian and Will, as well as their relationship with each other, stand above the rest of the story as main characters. Lillian is refined, clever, and deeply protective of her charge, as well as all of the women of New York City. She spends every Saturday holding open hours at her home, offering advice and consultations to any woman who comes in, no matter what they need. She is whip smart and with a reputation that precedes her, making her feel like a fun and novel take on Sherlock Holmes. Will serves as a nice contrast, a spunky ex-circus performer with a talent for knife throwing, lock picking, and a dozen other odd things. While her boss consults with people on Saturdays, Will hosts a self-defense class, teaching the women of the city how best to defend themselves.
Will and Lillian’s relationship is most present when Lillian’s multiple sclerosis flares up. Lillian often has difficulty with otherwise simple things, so Will assists her and takes over completely when possible, such as interviewing possible witnesses. The pair’s bond is given a tragic angle, the silent knowledge that at some point Lillian will no longer be able to investigate due to her condition. Will’s good nature is at its clearest here, the unabashed kindness and care she shows her mentor a nice splash of emotional warmth in an otherwise tense and exciting adventure, a kindness that Lillian returns throughout the story.
Queerness runs throughout the story. Will is bisexual, and the mutual attraction between her and Becca Collins, the daughter of the victim, runs throughout the story. Their courtship serves as a source of tension between multiple other characters, especially given the setting. In New York in 1945, same-sex relations were more than just frowned upon, and Will is threatened with physical violence several times during the story just for her interest in Becca. Seeing her rise to and above these threats, as well as the actions of her mentor to support and defend her, is deeply satisfying.
Pentecost and Parker are a version of Holmes and Watson that I didn’t know I needed until now, and I can’t wait to see more of them. The partnership between the two characters is wonderful, the mystery draws you in and makes you want to solve it, and the representation of not just queerness but also disability really make this book stand out. As of the writing of this review, two more books in this series are released, with a fourth on the way, and I can’t wait to get my hands on more of Pentecost and Parker.