Detecting Agency and Ethics: Review of Fortune Favors the Dead by Stephen Spotswood
Fortune Favors the Dead. Stephen Spotswood. Doubleday, 2020.
Amid calls for police abolition and budget cuts, scrutiny of American crime media—a genre inspired by police detectives—has yielded further reflections on law enforcement’s pervasiveness within our society. Literary depictions of police and private detectives diverge somewhat from the televised tradition, but all crime media seem bound for change as society grapples with real-world reform. The Atlantic’s June 2020 report on Dragnet, the late 1960s NBC police procedural, exposed the program’s reciprocal relationship with the LA Police Department. Crime fiction’s role in sustaining power structures upheld by the police is further complicated in private detective stories, which at once work within and beyond jurisdictional enforcement, often with a contentious relationship to the police and the law. This complexity of law, ethics, and detection drives Fortune Favors the Dead, Stephen Spotswood’s first novel in his forthcoming “Pentecost and Parker” detective series.
Fortune Favors the Dead owes much to its predecessors. Most evident in its Willowjean Parker’s portrayal as Watson-like narrator and supporting sleuth to the Holmesian Lillian Pentecost; the hint of an archnemesis also recalls Conan Doyle. Spotswood distinguishes his novel through a rollicking plot and a delightful cast of characters. Set in 1945 New York City, the established lady detective Pentecost and her assistant Parker embark on a murder mystery that has the potential to disrupt a lucrative weapon manufacturing contract. A year prior to the events of the novel, steel magnate Alistair Collins committed suicide, throwing his company’s negotiations into turmoil. When his wife, family matriarch Abigail Collins, is bludgeoned to death after a party séance, the detectives are tasked to investigate. A series of potential culprits wind Pentecost and Parker through family histories and secrets, suspicious fortune-tellers, and a professor theorizing death—all wrapped up in a locked-room mystery.
At the novel’s heart is Will Parker, sleuth-in-training. Her headstrong personality and charming narration, marked by wry, occasionally groan-inducing noir humor, carry the novel. Her complicated past and adventurous present offer the taste of danger and allure we require of our detective novels; she dives straight into perilous situations more than once, equipped with knives, fists, and wit. Parker’s characterization is enriched by her flirtation with the daughter of the deceased, and by her tenderhearted support of the ailing Pentecost. With a rambunctious storyline that pinballs between locations, Fortune Favors the Dead is a fast-paced read with genuinely endearing characters and relationships.
Spotswood further distinguishes his take on the detective novel through his attention to overlooked components of life in mid-century New York. Parker’s bisexuality builds carefully over the first half of the novel until it becomes relevant to the plot. Presented realistically for the period, though never tragic, Parker’s sexuality provides glimpses into the joy of gay bars and the social ramifications a visibly queer life can entail. Though Fortune Favors the Dead performs admirably in the various experiences of sexual marginalization, it fails to present significant characters of color—a notable lack for Spotwood’s otherwise significant study of New York’s proverbial melting pot. This is particularly unfortunate considering his ability to diversify the cast without the sense that he is checking off boxes.
If Fortune Favors the Dead indeed develops into a series, it may be a harbinger of a robust reconfiguration of crime and noir fiction, one that does not rely on the police or reinforce its propaganda. Spotswood is certainly cognizant of this tension within the genres; in a novel about a detective agency, policing is unavoidable. As one character remarks, “I’m merely pointing out that there is often a vast gulf between what is the law and what is right. And that everyone in this room understands that. The only difference, currently, is how far each of us is willing to go to see justice done.” Emerging as the series’ arch villain (the Moriarty, if you will), she sets herself against Pentecost, resetting the parameters of justice entirely beyond the police. Whether the subsequent books in the “Pentecost and Parker” series will posit vigilantism as the solution over an overhaul of the policing system—including the adjacent field of private detection—is yet to be seen.
Throughout the novel, Parker reiterates her disdain of “anyone with a badge.” Of course, private detectives can still maintain the same hegemonic structures that police enforce. Often, these stories are a messy in-between, defending the status quo and attempting to shake it up at the same time. Spotswood approaches questions of justice and the law with thoughtful deliberation. His narrative interrogates who has the agency to make such calls, and who suffers under them. The novel is at times a little silly, a little too heavy-handed in its depiction of the 1940s. It nevertheless accomplishes what any detective novel worth its salt sets out to do: have a good time. But for a modern audience, in order to evolve beyond noir nostalgia, the genre needs to account for serious criticisms of political industrial complexes and the carceral state. The end of the novel gestures toward further ethical quandaries that will surely complicate this first installment’s initial exploration. Elevated by its careful consideration of the intersection of policing, gender, and sexuality, Fortune Favors the Dead offers a thrilling start to what is sure to be a new chapter of private detective fiction.
Marisa Mercurio (she/her or they/them) is a Michigan-based writer and scholar. As a PhD student, she studies intersections of gender, sexuality, and empire in nineteenth century British literature; female detective fiction; horror and the Gothic. Marisa is also the co-creator and co-host of the However Improbable podcast, a Sherlock Holmes book club that narrates and discusses the great detective. Her writing has recently appeared in Sublime Horror. You can find her on Twitter @marmercurio and on WordPress.
This review was commissioned by editor Ashumi Shah on September 20, 2020 from a hard pitch emailed directly to the editor; the author and editor had no acquaintance prior to the author’s involvement with ARB. A review copy was arranged by ARB.