An enjoyable locked-room murder mystery, set in 1940s New York.

I’m not normally a fan of hardboiled gumshoe detective fiction but I really quite enjoyed this debut novel by playwright and journalist, Stephen Spotswood. And, like many of the books I’ve read recently, Fortune Favours the Dead arrived in a Mystery Selection bag from Oundle Library.

The story takes place in New York in the mid-1940s. Here we have a well-established detective agency run solely by a female proprietor, Lillian Pentecost. Due to increasing ill health she finds herself in need of an assistant. So onto the stage steps Willowjean Parker, a teen runaway and circus roustabout – quick thinking, resourceful, knife thrower par excellence and very bright. Will saves Lillian’s life and in return is offered a job, training, board and lodging and the promise of life skills. 

Fast forward three years and along comes the case of a New York socialite murdered in her office, after a much talked about seance. Picture the scene: a boozy Halloween party, an enigmatic and famous socialite medium and lots of guests. The dead woman is found bludgeoned to death in the same chair where her husband shot himself the previous year. There is even a message from him to his wife. And behind locked doors as well.

The two women detectives do solve the mystery, though not without some danger to Will.

Did I like it?
Yes, I quite did! I liked the period setting. I liked the resourceful Will and the thoughtful Lillian. Many of the other characters were also well described, the medium in particular. She is obviously false, but her warnings from the dead husband just before the killing were pretty well described. Some critics have complained that the period setting is poor and that is probably correct, but it is nonetheless an amusing story.

My verdict
3 Stars at the most from me, but my book group would tell you I’m notoriously stingy with my ratings! The next book in the series is about murder and mayhem in Will’s old circus. That should be good.
Review by: Freyja

P.S. Just to let you know, if you buy books linked to our site, we may earn a commission from, whose fees support independent bookshops.