Fortune Favors the Dead, by Stephen Spotswood

No, this is not another Nero Wolfe pastiche that lamely tries to follow Rex Stout’s formula. In Fortune Favors the Dead, written in 2020, author Stephen Spotswood has created two new and very original characters who vividly come to life in this tale, a combination of noir and Nero Wolfe, taking place in 1945. If that’s not your cup of tea, you can leave now—though I would encourage you to keep reading, and maybe I can change your mind.

OK, yes, detectives Lillian Pentecost and Willowjean Parker are clearly based on Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin respectively. But you have already spotted the major difference: both are women. There are also many minor differences—no orchids, no live-in chef, Brooklyn rather than Manhattan, for example—but we still have a pair of New York-based private detectives who live and work in a brownstone where they solve cases that stump the police. The senior detective (Pentecost) is brilliant, financially comfortable, and experienced; the junior (Parker) is brilliant, financially struggling, and eminently trainable. Pentecost also has multiple sclerosis, getting worse each year as MS does, but Spotswood doesn’t take the expected but easy path of confining her to the house in the Nero Wolfe tradition. Both detectives are also flawed, in the noir tradition—in contrast to Rex Stout’s characters, almost all of whom metaphorically wear either a white hat or a black hat.

When an author writes a story that takes place 75 years before it was written, it is natural to look for anachronisms. Natural for me, at any rate. Not being a historian, I’m sure I missed some historical anachronisms, if there were any—I didn’t spot a single one, at any rate. Being a linguist, I couldn’t help looking for linguistic anachronisms. I’m no expert on 1945 English, but almost nothing jumped out at me: the frequent use of “Ms.” and the occasional use of singular “they” are the only exceptions; both actually existed in 1945, though neither would be at all common at that time.

I should also mention that Spotswood has injected a good deal of unobtrusive humor into this novel—not in an offensive way, but just enough to make one smile. Otherwise, as I implied above, it is pure Nero Wolfe, at least to this reader’s eyes, even though Spotswood himself has claimed that the Pentecost role was inspired by a mixture of Wolfe, Holmes, Poirot, and Miss Marple. Maybe so, but I’m not seeing it.

Anyway, Fortune Favors the Dead held my attention throughout and was a great pleasure to read. I eagerly look forward to the second volume in this new series.

Categories: Books