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“The more I read, the more I acquire, the more certain I am that I know nothing.”
― Voltaire

The Spellman Files by Lisa Lutz

The Spellman Files - Lisa Lutz

 

 
Recommended for: someone looking for the literary equivalent of Bringing Up Baby
 
 
 

This book won’t work for some, but head into it in the right frame of mind and it’s a fun ride, a modern screwball comedy crossed with spy caper, Harriet the Spy meets Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead.

 

Isabel is a private investigator in the family business, Spellman Investigations. It’s been a hard road getting there after a decade of childish rebellion. “Since David [her brother] had cornered the market on perfection, I had to settle for mining the depths of my own imperfection.” Spellman co-workers include younger sister, Rae (“Rae would eventually throw everything off balance, but I’ll get to that later.”) Then there’s her parents:  her mother, Olivia who met her father when she was spying on a potential brother-in-law, and her father and former police detective, Albert. Albert has a special sense of humor: “His sense of humor is purely cheap vaudeville, yet everyone falls for it. Some of his routines–like sneezing Eastern European names–he never grows tired of. Only his children have suggested he work up some new material.”

 

A recent addition to the team is former officer and born-again gambler, Uncle Ray, perhaps the only straight-shooter in the family. “I asked him what he’d been up to for the past two weeks and he replied, ‘Let’s see. I went on a five-day bender, sobered up during a forty-eight-hour poker game. Had a few dates in Reno. Another poker game. Three days, for the life of me, I can’t remember.” Her brother David, refused to join the family business–he’s rebelled by becoming a lawyer. “The truth was, the job didn’t interest David. He thought people had a right to privacy. The rest of us did not.”

 

One of the most interesting aspects of the story is its deconstructed structure. A number of journal entries, flashbacks, interrogations and scene shots build both current story and background but require reader synthesis. Isabel is a little obsessed with keeping track (or proving her case)  and a number of her exploits are list-oriented, reminding me of Cursed. For instance, there’s profiles summarizing relationships through “Ex-Boyfriend #8″ (#6 and #9 “simply cannot reduce to the data that will fit on a three-by-five index card“) and Uncle’s series of benders, known as “Lost Weekend #.” There’s also the three main incidents that changed her path from her life of irresponsible hedonism to one of maturity. While it is the type of structure that can smack of authorial gimmick, here it worked.

Perhaps the disjointed set-up allows for certain parallels to be made between the narrator and the reader, so that they are at similar perspective when the main event appears. However, Lutz is smart enough to not stay with the device too long; once past the introduction and historical context, narrative smooths out and becomes more linear.

 

Writing is clever with lines that make me laugh out loud. Much like the screwball comedy, the humor isn’t based on one-liners, but a clever set-up that suddenly resolves into an absurd scenario. There’s a scene on a stake-out with young Rae that particularly amused me. The romance plot is a series of harebrained schemes that escalate from one little lie.

 

Plotting is interesting; truly, the story is more about a dysfunctional family who specializes in investigative work than any specific mystery. There’s a sub-plot of Ex-Boyfriend #9, which really does start to resemble screwball comedy, and a war between the Ra(y/e)s that is remarkably calculating. Those who want a crime-solving story are apt to be disappointed. I hesitate to compare it to Janet Evanovich‘s Stephanie Plum series; this is in many ways darker, less functional, less “I Love Lucy.” There’s proliferate mention of drug use in the past, and some questionable family dynamics. The reader gets the feel there is a mystery in the beginning, but it’s only hinted at in an early interview with a police detective. Half-way through, Isabel is given her own cold case to work, but the conclusion and resolution were no real surprise to me as a reader. It serves more as a foil for the narrator’s own family. I didn’t mind the lack of suspense involved with it, as by then I understood the real story is the family and Isabel.

 

I enjoyed it–like frozen yogurt with sprinkles, it went down smooth and clean with no ice-cream headache or aftertaste. Note that it likely has high re-read potential, especially given it is more about character and relationships than mystery. It’s also worth noting that it received the female parent’s thumbs-up. Next one already ordered from the library.