May 20, 2007

BOOKS: The Spellman Files, Lisa Lutz (2007)

Family is complicated under the best of circumstances, but when everyone in the family -- right down to the 14-year-old daughter -- is a trained private investigator, those moments of dysfunction get really complicated. And so it is with the Spellman family of San Francisco.

Parents Albert and Olivia have raised their daughter, Isabel ("Izzy"), in the business, but now that she's in her late 20s, she's wanting to find a way out; it's hard, for one thing, to have a real love life when your parents are doing full background checks on every new boyfriend. Izzy is also starting to worry about her 14-year-old sister, Rae, who's developing an unhealthy fondness for doing unauthorized surveillance of random strangers. Only big brother David, an attorney, isn't directly involved in the family business, though he and his law firm do send a lot of business back to Mom and Dad.

The characters are lively and sharply defined, and the dynamics of living in a professionally nosy family are captured with crisp wit. We also get a vivid glimpse of how the Spellmans look to an outsider, as Izzy's newest boyfriend Daniel finds himself caught up in the web of deception that they've come to take for granted.

I don't know if Lutz plans further novels about the Spellmans; I hope so. This novel is narrated by Izzy, but it would be fun to read stories told from each Spellman's point of view. Lutz frequently has Izzy fill us in on the background to current events with flashbacks to notable events in Spellman family history, and I'd love to see some of those events as narrated by other characters in future volumes (Rae's version of her stint at summer camp, for instance).

If there are further volumes, Lutz will have to work hard on her plotting skills. The story is the least interesting thing here; it takes forever to kick into gear, and it's not very interesting or suspenseful when it does arrive. She gets away with it because she's doing such a marvelous job of introducing these characters, but I don't think that witty dialogue and amusing character will be enough to sustain the characters through more novels.

It's enough to make this one a nifty entertainment, though, and it's a very promising first novel.

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