Mystery devotees could long argue over what period represented the peak era of American noir/mystery writing, but it’s likely all would agree that the 1940s would be high on everyone’s list. With such luminaries as Rex Stout, Raymond Chandler, and Dorothy Hughes established and up and comers Mickey Spillane and Jim Thompson making their mark in the pulp magazines, the culture of World War II America was ripe for literary inspiration. Novelist Stephen Spotswood is definitely a fan, as evidenced by debut Fortune Favors the Dead, which plays with the conventions of 1940s noir with a twist. Fortune is told from the perspective of Willowjean Parker, not her real name, a former circus performer recruited to serve as assistant to New York’s famous ‘lady detective’ Lillian Pentecost. Ms. P, as Will affectionately calls her, is coping with the debilitating progression of her multiple sclerosis; Will is to be her eyes and ears on the street and, it’s implied, succeed her in her private investigation firm. Will is at first skeptical—she prefers to avoid anything to do with the law if she can help it—but under Ms. P’s watch, discovers she’s pretty good at using her gut instinct and circus skills to keep the bad guys at bay and mete out some justice.
Fast forward to 1946, and the suspicious death of the widow of a wealthy steel tycoon. Abigail Collins held a séance where the shade of her deceased husband made an appearance, with the widow dying shortly afterwards in a locked room and her head bashed in by a crystal ball. The newspapers are calling the ghost of Mr. Collins the culprit, but Lillian, Will and the police see that there are far too many suspicious corporeal characters surrounding Mrs. Collins for the deed to have been done by a scapeghost. Among them are Abigail’s twin children, Randolph and Rebecca, the latter of which turns Will’s head even as she knows both stand to inherit a fortune from their mother’s death. There’s also the medium who knows a bit too much about everyone, the college professor whose research into the paranormal suggests a fascination that’s beyond academic and the long-time friend and colleague of Mr. Collins who has shown some suspicious behavior as of late and has some pretty large sums of money passing through his bank account. It’s no surprise the fists start flying and another body is added to the mix. And while Will and Ms. P have proven how well they can navigate even the most byzantine of crimes, this one threatens to cloud both of their judgments, Will by the alluring Becca and Ms. P by the specter of unsolved crimes years earlier.
Spotswood features the archetypal 1940s sorts that are familiar to fans of the era, from the femme fatale to the world-weary cop, but gives his central characters of Will and Lillian more of a backstory that bodes well for possible future installments. Will’s incessant 1940s slang and wise-cracks takes a little getting used to for 21st century readers and the solution doesn’t entirely satisfy, but readers of Nero Wolfe and the like will feel right at home. Recommended for readers looking for a lighter historical mystery and noir, fans of queer detectives or anyone is search of a light weekend mystery.