Reviewer: Philipa Coughlan
Publisher: Wildfire (imprint of Headline Publishing Group 7 December 2021
ISBN: 978-1472291677 HB
I was delighted to be in one of the first in line when the debut novel of this series ‘Fortune Favours the Dead’ was published as it broke the mould of many previous detective partnerships. Feared established sleuth Ms Lilian Pentecost has many a successful case under her belt as she uses her female Holmes style methods to to knock suspects off their ego perches. But she has multiple sclerosis and although unwilling to give in gracefully has sought out the younger and more agile Willowjean ‘Will’ Parker to be her assistant for literally the ‘leg work’. Will is the sparky narrator, who seemed wide eyed in the first novel but is now maturing yet with that hint of spellbound admiration for the boss and her new role as detective.
The first book showed us meeting Will and something of her past but this second novel explores more fully her life since 15 in the circus to which she escaped. Now her five years learning acrobatic skills and meeting friends at the Hart and Halloway’s Travelling circus are brought to the fore when she hears Ruby Donner, the circus’s tattooed ingenue is murdered and suspect is among those Will knew so well. With knife thrower Valentin Kalishenko is charged with stabbing Ruby and is in jail awaiting trial.
Will and Ms Pentecost set off for sleepy Stoppard in Virginia where the suspect may face the electric chair and locals like their cocktails mild, the past and its secrets buried and definitely do not want city slicker sleuths interfering in their world. The action is lively as you might expect from amongst the stars of a circus, but there is also the worrying evangelical The Blood of the Lamb Church with meek women and hell fire preachers and the fact that Ruby left the town in some haste also to escape to the circus. Now on her return someone didn’t like her presence and wanted her kept quiet from spilling secrets that cross many paths of people in the town.
The subtle descriptions of many changes of wonderful clothes for Will and Ms Pentecost totally immersed me in their daily plans for investigating and excluding red herrings along the way. It was as if being well dressed meant sleuthing was styled out to reach the truth- no signs of crumpled Columbo macs here! The novel also explored Will’s past in more detail and her sexuality which at times added both spice and some sadness. But a mention for some fabulous humour in the dialogue which lifts the characters so well as they spar together or seek to uncover some grisly crimes.
Do you need to have read the first book to follow things? No not really, as this stands alone well with an excellent plot, brilliant characters – especially the larger than life stars of the circus even if its star as a small entertainment business is fading. Each circus performer and their attributes/skills – be it knives, tattoos, magic or speed will all lead to uncovering the truth. Beware the so named freaks, snakes and creepy crawlies which at that time post WWII were part of the scene. Descriptions of the town are brilliant, I almost felt I could wander round and know everyone from the store to the un Majestic cinema – both in its somewhat ramshackle 1940s decline and how it is set against the criminal world seeping through into the previous sleepy farms and labourers as the need for greed is revealed.
There is a depth to the author’s writing that really explores new territory in the mystery/crime genre and I like the way this series is developing. As a personal read I lapped it up and was myself bamboozled on the reveal of the murderer. I think the books will also appeal to all types of readers and book groups across generations as there is something of interest for many.Both Will Parker and Ms Lilian Pentecost deserve a long rest after this case which stretched them to physical exhaustion and revived personal emotional depths. But they will be back – won’t they? Please.