Murder Under her Skin

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About six months ago I reviewed Fortune Favors the Dead, the first Pentecost and Parker novel by Stephen Spotswood. Now I’ve read the second book in the series: Murder Under her Skin. It’s even better than its predecessor. (You may want to read the two in order, although it isn’t strictly necessary, as everything relevant you need to know from novel #1 is unobtrusively and painlessly repeated in novel #2.)

Murder Under her Skin takes place a year later than Fortune Favors the Dead, i.e. 1946. Same major characters, but there is a change of venue from NYC to southwestern Virginia, a.k.a. Appalachia.

Anyway, as you might expect from the sophomore contribution to any series, the debt to the original inspiration is a little less obvious than it was in the freshman effort. As I wrote in my review of novel #1, the inspiration is clearly Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin from Rex Stout’s long series, and that gains some distance this time. Only once does Lillian Pentecost sound like she’s quoting Nero Wolfe: “I do abhor a surfeit of coincidence,” a wonderfully Wolfean sentence. And since she and her sidekick have had to leave their New York house to investigate an all-too-personal murder hundreds of miles away, the familiar trappings of their house are gone, so we don’t have to compare and contrast with Wolfe’s brownstone.

As in many of the best mysteries, the reader learns about an unfamiliar world—the world of the traveling circus in the ’40s in this case. The setting is completely convincing, from Willowjean Parker’s former colleagues in the circus to the decrepit seating in the small Appalachian town’s lone movie theatre. I’m not, of course, going to commit any spoilers here, but let me just recall Dennis Lehane’s maxim about figuring out who the murderer turns out to be: determine which character doesn’t have any obvious reason for appearing in a scene. That’s not going to tell you whodunnit (or whodunit, depending on your preferences) in this tale, but it might let you eliminate a candidate or two.

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