The detective team of Lillian Pentecost and Willowjean “Will” Parker is on the case again—and this time, they’re multitasking. The duo, created by DC writer Stephen Spotswood with a nod to famous tecs like Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, took on spurious spiritualists in “Fortune Favors the Dead” and evasive circus performers in “Murder Under Her Skin.” Now they’re back for a third go-round with “Secrets Typed in Blood.”
Pentecost, “known far and wide as the greatest private detective working in New York City in that year of our Lord 1947,” is once again joined by her assistant, the frank and feisty Parker, who is the series’ queer narrator. Will also serves as the older woman’s “leg-woman, sounding board, note taker, occasional browbeater, and sometimes translator…also the office manager.”
As in the previous two books, the action is unrelenting, the plot serpentine, and the language delicious. Witness this take on a perp in a gray suit: “He had the kind of easy-smiling face you’d hire to play second-fiddle in a Seagram’s ad.” Or the description of a woman with a “cavernous” handbag who doesn’t just root through it; she goes “spelunking.” Will Parker’s voice, part wise and part wiseacre, keeps things crackling along with noir panache.
“Secrets Typed in Blood” begins with a rip-roaring take-down of a vicious kidnapper—a caper that has Will reluctantly posing as a simpering schoolgirl—but before they can catch their breath, the detectives are visited by a wren-like woman who claims that someone is stealing her murders. Once they get to the bottom of her digressive twittering, they discover that their prospective client, Holly Quick, is a writer of pulp crime fiction—and that several recent killings uncannily mirror her stories.
Even as they investigate the bizarre murders—which takes them, among other places, to an exclusive club that houses a macabre “museum” of crime memorabilia—they are also tending to some other unfinished business. It’s an unresolved case that they “had been picking at for over a year: the Waterhouse Project.” Described by Will as “a shark swimming in the shallows,” Olivia Waterhouse had actually confessed “right in our office” to a string of deaths and disappearances of men whom she thought needed to be taught a lesson. Then she vanished without a trace, “visible only by the blood left in her wake.”
To track her, Parker goes undercover at a firm where Waterhouse once temped, this time donning secretarial garb to assume the persona of “a loquacious redhead who could type seventy-two words a minute and asked a lot of silly questions.” She’s not crazy about the assignment, but it’s the only lead they have. “I hate pencil skirts,” she complains. “I can never fit a holster under the things.”
Suffice it to say that, between the two of them—and despite Lillian’s ongoing struggle with the debilitating effects of multiple sclerosis—they manage to tie all the strands together. As in life, the resolution is not entirely satisfactory—nor does it come without risks to life and limb—but it results in a justice of sorts and, more importantly, means that Pentecost and Parker will live to fight another day. And that Spotswood will, I hope, continue to delight readers with these witty, sophisticated, and wildly entertaining mysteries for many years to come.
Stephen Spotswood is an award-winning playwright, educator, and journalist who spent much of the last two decades writing about the aftermath of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the struggles of wounded veterans. He was the winner of the 2021 Nero Award for best American mystery and a two-time finalist for the Lambda Literary Award for LGBTQ Mystery. He lives in DC with his wife, young-adult author Jessica Spotswood. www.stephenspotswood.com
Karen Lyon has retired from writing the Literary Hill column, but couldn’t resist doing one last review in her favorite genre.