reviewed by Gail Byrd
In the 1940s a pair of female detectives was an oddity. Add to that the senior member of the pair is battling Multiple Sclerosis and the junior member is a refugee from the circus and you have the beginnings of the Pentecost and Parker Detective team, and what a team they make.
Pentecost is a brilliant detective with an uncanny ability to separate truth from fiction when questioning people. She could have made a living as a fortune teller if she had been the one from the circus, she is that good at digging out information. As for Willowjean Parker, the younger member of the pair, her time in the circus was well spent. She developed an array of physical talents that are more than useful when she is tracking criminals who think nothing of inflicting bodily harm.
Murder Under Her Skin is the second in the Pentecost and Parker Mystery Series by Stephen Spotswood, a series that is uniquely hardboiled, considering the gender of the detectives, with just enough wry humor to keep it from becoming too heavy-handed. The mystery starts when people from Willowjean’s old life in the circus need the services she and her boss have cultivated in her new life as chief investigator for the Pentecost and Parker Agency. While Willowjean isn’t sure she likes the idea of the two separate lives becoming better acquainted, she’s equally sure her old friend and mentor, the knife throwing Kalishenko, couldn’t possibly have murdered their mutual circus member, Ruby, The Tattooed Lady. However, Kalishinko is in jail in a small town in North Carolina and Willowjean, along with Ms. Pentecost, heed the call for help.
Spotswood weaves the life and unique world of the circus in and out of the story with a deft hand. Willowjean is certain Ruby was murdered by someone local as circus people consider each other family and no one in the family would murder anyone else. Would they? As the investigation continues schisms in the family condition appear. Why is Mysterio the Magician so certain he saw Kalishinko in the area where Ruby was murdered shortly before her body was found? What is the magician’s assistant’s agenda and why does she seem to hold herself apart? Why does someone try to burn down a section of Sideshow Alley and almost kill Ray, the snake handler in the process? Most troubling, what about the things that were found in Ruby’s trailer and removed by someone before the police could conduct their search?
The circus is not the only place where suspects abound. In the small North Carolina town where Ruby was raised there is her old flame, now home from WWII, missing a limb and sporting shrapnel scars. He probably isn’t the killer, but he is in the mix somehow. Then there’s his family, all members of the independent church in town, who must have seen Ruby as a sinner of the worst kind. In addition to the suspects, there are numerous characters who have good depth and provide excellent additions to the main story. Each one is well developed, no matter how briefly they appear in the book.
While the reader has ample opportunity to solve the mystery along with Pentecost and Parker, they may get so wrapped up in the story they decide not to worry about it and just enjoy the book. For those who are wanting to try their hand at detective work, be aware that Spotswood does an excellent job of verbal sleight of hand, drawing your attention in one direction while dangling the truth just under your nose. Either way, it’s a fair bet you will enjoy this book and the continuation of the series.
This mystery stands alone, and it is not necessary to have read the first one to thoroughly enjoy this book or to understand the relationship between Pentecost and Parker. There are some references to the first book which may pique your interest and have you going back to read it as well both because it is another good mystery and because it gives more insight into Pentecost and Parker.
Doubleday books provided me with an advance copy of the book for this review. The opinions stated here are completely my own.
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