Stephen Spotswood's dynamic detective duo makes a welcome return in a fourth outing.
"Murder Crossed Her Mind" sees Lillian Pentecost, "the finest mind in New York City," and trusty assistant Willowjean "Will" Parker taking on a fiendish missing-persons case. While investigating, both women are forced to embark on separate assignments to track down personal enemies intent on exploiting identities, sullying reputations and destroying lives.
One day in 1947, Will enters the Brooklyn brownstone she calls her office and home to discover her boss in consultation with old adversary Forest Whitsun, a prominent criminal defense attorney "and, by definition, a lying snake." This time Whitsun is telling the truth. He informs the women that his friend Perseverance "Vera" Bodine has disappeared. A retired legal secretary in her late 70s, Vera was a recluse and a hoarder. She was also blessed with a prodigious memory, which made her a star employee at Boekbinder & Gimbal and a prize asset for the FBI. Did she know too much?
Lillian and Will try to track Vera down, all too aware that time is running out: There are people out there who will go to extreme lengths to find out what she remembers — or who will resort to equally desperate measures to ensure that she forgets. Their inquiries take them far and wide: to Vera's former employer, to a gay bar owned by the mob and to a five-and-dime on Long Island that may or may not be run by a Nazi spy.
When Whitsun is arrested, the sleuths must decide if the police have the right culprit. As if this weren't enough, Lillian heads toward a showdown with murder enthusiast Jessup Quincannon while Will gets on the wrong side of "blade-happy psychopath" Donny Russo. The search for Vera looks set to become a battle for survival.
Spotswood's latest Pentecost and Parker installment has weak spots: Some of Will's slick phrasings don't work ("If there was reason, it didn't rhyme"; "a blonde who put the femme in fatale"). Worse, Spotswood flouts the golden rule of whodunits by making a peripheral figure the main culprit.
These niggles notwithstanding, "Murder Crossed Her Mind" is a worthy addition to a superb series. It is deftly plotted and expertly paced. The scrapes and skirmishes provide thrills, with moments of genuine tension that make the reader wonder if Will can make it out of danger and back into the arms of her beloved Holly Quick.
As ever, the proceedings are powered by Spotswood's two well-drawn heroines. Despite her multiple sclerosis flare-ups, Lillian remains a formidable force with a commanding presence. Her plucky, quick-witted "leg woman" Will still elicits smiles with her droll narration: "conversation turned, as it is wont to do at the breakfast table, to the rate of decay of the human body." Bring on this pair's next magical mystery.
Malcolm Forbes, who has written for the Economist and the Wall Street Journal, lives in Edinburgh, Scotland. Upcoming review: "The Frozen River" by Ariel Lawhorn.
Murder Crossed Her Mind
By: Stephen Spotswood.
Publisher: Doubleday, 364 pages, $27.