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

Trail of the Spellmans by Lisa Lutz

Trail of the Spellmans  - Lisa Lutz

Sometimes you just need light and fluffy. Lutz’ Spellman series fits the bill perfectly, with enough complexity and surprises to prevent boredom, clever lines to provide laughter and a remarkable entertaining heroine.


In this installment, Isabel is active again in her family’s detective business. Her younger sister Rae is off at college at Berkley, but still takes a hand in a case or two. Rae mostly seems to come around to work on convincing Spellman Investigations’ newest employee, Demetrius, to file a lawsuit against the state for false imprisonment. Isabel’s mom has enrolled in a surprising number of classes including Russian and crochet (or is it croquet? Isabel can’t read her writing) and her dad remains on his health-food diet without his knowledge since Demetrius does most of the cooking. Isabel’s still living with boyfriend Henry, but his mom has come to visit and Isabel still hasn’t given him the answer to that pesky question. Next to, underneath or behind all of this are a number of mysteries–the mystery of the OCD client and the suspicious household incidents, the surveillance of the college student at the request of her parents, the society wife who wants Isabel to tail her husband doing his normal routine, the society wife’s brother who wants the agency to tail his sister–and those are just the billable ones. Then there is the mystery of her brother David evicting Rae from his basement apartment, and Rae’s withdrawal from the family. Interestingly, the surveillance of the college student bothers Isabel the most–she who is normally so free violating others’ privacy:


“Vivien had been a minor only six months ago. I believe in the folly of youth. I believe in rebellion and questioning authority and I even believe it’s okay to commit a few misdemeanors now and again. ‘Try to steer clear of felonies’ is my motto (1).


(1) In fact, that will be the title of my memoirs, should I ever write them.”


One of the aspects of Lutz’ writing that I enjoy is Isabel’s willful misunderstanding of social norms. It almost always makes me giggle, except the points when, like her parents, I believe she is doing it purposefully to avoid dealing with an issue. Some samples:


After I cleaned the batter spill, I made D some warm milk and suggested he take something stronger. ‘Just a bit,’ D said. Apparently there were a few drunks in his family and he liked to be careful. I didn’t quite follow the logic. We had some excellent drunks in my family too. I poured a splash of whiskey into the milk and sat with D as he drank.


“What I wanted, I suppose, was for things to stay the same, for the universe to be in the same order it was in a few months ago (a simpler time) and for people to behave in the manner I had come to expect. I’ve got nothing against change, but sometimes it’s totally unnecessary.


“That’s the last time I ask you to babysit.’                                                                                        

‘Okay,’ I replied, wondering if he was planning to tack on a legitimate threat.”


It takes a good writer to be able to write entertaining, quirky characters without them becoming mere props for various schemes and absurd incidents (see Stephanie Plum, books nine through infinity). Luckily, Lutz seems adapt at finding that line, giving even secondary characters their moments of weakness or emotional fears that humanize them.

Lutz’ characteristic disjointed narrative style is back as well. Thankfully, after the first few chapters that play around with “code names” for all the Spellman investigators, the cleverness of the narrative style settles down into more direct storytelling.  There are still footnotes, but many of them reference “Document #X” (prior books), a literary shortcut for the reader’s convenience.


Isabel is one of the more enjoyable characters around. Clever, occasionally manipulative, careless about her appearance and extraordinarily single-minded at times, I find her very human. The silly moments are tempered by irritation, even with herself. I empathize with her reluctance to make change at the same time her curious nature seeks it. There is a part about Isabel’s failed foray into the art of the “thank you note” that had me laughing out loud. Yes, the notes are hysterical not only for their situation, but because a snarky, intelligent kid was fighting back against her parents in the way she knew best–obeying the letter of the law but completely squashing the spirit of it.  I have to mention how much I enjoy Lutz’ complete failure to include standard chick-lit narratives, including what she’s wearing (mentioned only to make a point), her boyfriend’s looks and general angst about her relationships. But that could be because, like Isabel, I’d rather avoid those things: “I needed a drink after my morning with Sydney and my afternoon with David and my life with myself.


Lutz writes in the afterward that she hadn’t intended a fifth book, but you wouldn’t know it from the seamless way it picks up from book four and continues to move the characters along in their lives. Although there’s a few scenes that seemed over-familiar, I’m not complaining. I’m used to book deja vu, and in a series, there’s bound to be some familiar moments.  Thankfully, Isabel continues to grow and her relationship with her family to evolve, however reluctantly. I’ll definitely be checking out book six, The Last Word.