I once rode an elephant… bareback… around the hippodrome… during a circus performance…
Cassidy is one of my favorite students of all time and she has the circus in her blood. I didn’t really know what that meant until I met her. Although, I always thought that I would enjoy the company of those who find the idea of running away to join the circus an appealing way to go about one’s life. And, while I never officially joined the circus—well, for a single day I kinda did—I do know a bit about running away.
Both of Cassidy’s parents were “cirkies” that performed a number of jobs for the Clyde Beatty Cole Bros. Circus in the 1990s. Like many of the small touring circuses, Florida served as a winter home. So during much of the school year, Cassidy’s parents were camped nearby and, to offer a degree of stability during her formative years, and while they hit the road, she stayed with a relative in a small apartment that served as her official address; making her eligible to attend Maitland Middle School.
So, “Hey Mr. Morgan, do you want to ride an elephant?” There is, my friends, only a single way to answer a question like that.
That near-thirty year-old memory bubbled to the surface after reading Fortune Favors the Dead (2020) by Stephen Spotswood, the first of four mystery novels featuring famed private investigator Lillian Pentecost and her associate Willowjean “Will” Parker.
Set in post-World War II New York, the Pentecost and Parker mysteries are a delightful collection of noir-style crime fiction—à la the hard-boiled detective stories of Raymond Chandler—infused with a refreshing present-ness. While staying true to the realities of the late 1940s, both Pentecost and Parker exhibit the early characteristics and non-traditional behaviors that would catalyze into the feminist movement of the 1960s and 70s.
Pentecost is in her forties, rather reserved, quietly contemplative, and extraordinarily private. What we learn of her back story is teased out in fits and starts throughout the series, and even then, she remains a mystery, at least through Murder Under Her Skin (2021) and Secrets Typed in Blood (2022).
What we actually do learn of Lillian Pentecost’s history is delivered almost exclusively in terms of her celebrity as the sagest sleuth in the city. Her physical appearance is drawn with the detail common to noir fiction, as if hair color or the line of the lips is a clue whose importance will be revealed only later. Most notably, Pentecost often walks with the assistance of a cane while managing a slowly progressing yet incurable case of multiple sclerosis; a disease with a purpose. It motivates Lillian to do as much good as she can with the time she has left.
Just like Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe, Spotswood’s Lillian Pentecost has a soft spot for the underdogs. Her primary mission is to help those in need, particularly women living in a misogynistic and often-oppressive society. These motivations add to the modern vibe of these great stories.
As the first-person narrator, in contrast, the back story and personal thoughts of Will Parker are on full and vibrant display in the first few pages of the first book in the series. So, it is no spoiler to say that Parker ran away from home at age 15 to get away from an abusive father, and then hooked up with a traveling circus; which became the first phase of her education.
This is the part that jogged my elephant-riding memory. During that same day and before the performance, Cassidy gave us a behind-the-scenes tour of the Clyde Beatty Cole Bros. Circus. We met her “family” of circus roustabouts and a few performers, too. We also visited the cages holding a number of tigers.
When Spotswood’s spunky and boyish Will Parker joined the circus at15, she started at the bottom; in this case, cleaning up what the tigers and other large animals put down. Reading these passages evinced an olfactory reaction on my part as I recalled the sting of gallons and pounds of tiger effluence.
It wasn’t long before the performers took note of Will’s potential; beginning with Valentin Kalishenko, Dancer of Blades, Master of Fire, Last and Final Heir of Rasputin whose act required the assistance of a scantily clad lass willing to have knives thrown her way. Kalishenko takes Will under his wing and teaches her his craft.
Five years later in the book’s opening scene, after Parker, now 20, hints at her time with Kalishenko, we discover that she has a knife strapped to her calf in a leather sheath and know almost immediately that it will be deployed with great accuracy.
“Long hours spent with Kalishenko in a hundred dust-choked fields between Boise and Brooklyn,” she ponders, “made what happened next almost too easy,” A moment later, “The weighted blade hit home with a sickening thud.” That’s from page 12.
Parker will apply many other circus skills throughout the entire series including juggling fire, walking over hot coals, costuming and make-up, bareback horse riding, sharpshooting, handling wild animals, tightrope walking, performing sleight of hand tricks with the cards, and more.
And, she shares, “during a short ill-advised romance with a contortionist… he taught me how to tackle any lock ever made, how to wriggle out of a straight jacket, both rigged and legit; and a few other things you don’t put on a résumé.”
Filling out this phase of her education, Will Parker spends her leisure time absorbed in the pulp fiction detective stories so popular in the 1940s. In a later scene, while butting heads with a copper just a bit intimidated by Lillian Pentecost and her associate, Will asks, “Any new leads?” “Nothing you need to worry about,” he said. “Stick to your Raymond Chandlers and let the police worry about the real criminals. We do manage to get one occasionally.”
Most importantly, Will Parker, much like Cassidy, developed an independent spirit and confidence which seems endemic to circus life. In Parker’s case, these qualities allowed her to see herself as she was, despite the judgments of others. This opens the door to all kinds of fun and Stephen Spotswood manages it deftly. So, just as Phillip Marlowe often “gets the girl”… so does Willowjean Parker… and the occasional “boy” too.
Will Parker speaks to modern sensibilities and reminds us that diverse orientations and non-binary identities have always been part of the human condition. It is only through the broader acceptance of this reality that we have changed at all; although recent events suggest that we still have a great deal of work to do. Getting to know and love Will Parker is part of that work and Spotswood does a fine job intimating her truths without titillating too much.
Here’s Will Parker’s take on one who may turn out a villain or a lover, it’s hard to tell: “There it was. Just a little bit of the viper around her lips. And more than a little fire lighting up those big dark eyes. I thought of about twenty things to say in reply, but none of them made it to my tongue.”
In another scene, after a spat with a girlfriend, Parker shares this exchange: “I forgive you,” she said, gracing me with a smile. “We still on for tomorrow night?” I asked. “Of course. But I’m going to have to insist you tell me where we’re going. If only so I don’t turn up in the wrong shoes.”
Will Parker and Lillian Pentecost meet very early on in Fortune Favors the Dead and I’ll tell you only that it has just a bit of something to do with that “sickening thud” of a Kalishenko knife.
Pentecost, like all those in the circus, recognizes Will Parker’s potential and therein begins the second phase of her unorthodox education. The next chapter begins with, “Three years passed. Enough happened during that time to fill a dozen books.”
We’ll see if Stephen Spotswood gets to a dozen Pentecost and Parker mysteries. Right now his fourth, Murder Crossed Her Mind (2023), released on December 5, 2023.