Review: Fortune Favors the Dead, by Stephen Spotswood
Doubleday, 2020. 321 pp. $27

Brooklyn, 1942. Willowjean Parker, a circus performer, has a temporary gig on her off nights guarding a building site, trying to earn some extra dough. That leads her to make two significant connections. First, she interrupts what might be an attempted murder, having deduced that a particular mug is trouble, and intervenes at the right moment. Second, the potential victim she rescues is Lillian Pentecost, the city’s most famous private detective, who offers Willowjean (known as Will) a job. Lillian suffers from MS, and she needs someone to perform legwork, preferably someone who’s agile, observant, and able to defend herself. Thus begins a fruitful partnership.

Three years later, a headline case involves the detectives. The prior year, Alistair Collins, whose steel company got fabulously rich on wartime government contracts, shot himself, which raised questions at the time. Now, the war has ended, and the board of directors resists calls to abandon the weapons business and return to peacetime manufactures. Those demands come from Abigail Collins, Alistair’s widow — and, as it happens, his former secretary. But she too dies, at a Halloween party where a medium conducts a séance, and practically everyone in the phone book is a suspect.

However, when the police get nowhere solving Abigail’s murder, the Collins family calls in Lillian and Will, hoping to make headway on the investigation without drawing attention. The insistence on secrecy might be only natural, given the Collins name and position of wealth and power, except that everybody seems to be lying. To add to the confusion, Will has a thing for Becca Collins, the late industrialist’s beautiful daughter, and the attraction seems mutual.

Throw in that Will, the proverbial child who grew up rough and ran away to join the circus, has a narrative style that will remind you, if the circumstances don’t, of the hard-boiled detective novels she devours. One quip reads, “She’d filled up with enough coffee to get Rip van Winkle doing the jitterbug”; or, about Becca, a “borderline wild child,” Will observes, “Though ‘wild’ by the standards of her tax bracket might constitute using the salad fork on the entrée.” Falling for a key witness is also an oldie, though the gender reversal provides a twist. You get the idea, though, that Spotswood’s aware of what he’s imitating, and his obvious love for the genre shows through. He also knows better than to take it too seriously.

Humphrey Bogart plays Raymond Chandler’s great hard-boiled detective, Philip Marlowe, with Lauren Bacall as Vivian Rutledge, in their 1946 film The Big Sleep. (courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain, as the National Motion Picture Council did not renew the copyright.)

The author weaves the mystery with a sure hand, and though you may guess at a fact or two, he hides the trail well while still leaving everything in plain sight. Or just about; I’ll get to that in a second.

The real divergence from convention centers on the characters: They’re vulnerable. Lillian holds back more, because she’s naturally reserved, but you get her around the edges, and she’s human. I wish she came across more fully, but here’s a woman who knows she’s dying, yet asks no favors and gives her services pro bono to people who couldn’t afford her, like those with abusive husbands or crooked employers. Lillian has a cause, helping other women, which in part led her to Will.

Will’s more out there emotionally, and though her bio sounds like a cliché, she herself isn’t. She has passions and principles, and if she’s more likely to show the latter than the former, you do see them, and she’s not in the least buttoned down like her boss. She too will respond to a woman in distress, as she once was herself, a worthy feminist twist on an old formula. Always, beneath the tough exterior lurks a frightened child:

But sitting in that cell, my anxieties bred fast, and like with the bedbugs, scratching only made it worse. I spent the second night alone. The only light was from a dim bulb far down the corridor. The bravado I’d managed to conjure up and wear like a shield drained away. I pictured the cell door opening and my father stepping in, his face red, leather belt wrapped tight around his fist.
Found you.

A few chapters from the end, when the detectives are close to solving the mystery, Spotswood plainly withholds conclusions they’ve reached or specifics about preparations they’re making. I wish he hadn’t, but I understand why he does so. He also pulls a punch in the great revelatory scene, in which the detectives spill all (another trope, that). On a minor note, the courtesy title Ms. appears throughout, oddly enough. There’s a hint that Will is narrating from the distant future, but that would not explain why characters in 1945 would even think to speak like that.

However, these are quibbles. Fortune Favors the Dead is a terrific mystery, and this first volume in an intended series promises entertaining adventures.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.