Tour’s Books Blog

April 13, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: Revenge of the Spellmans by Lisa Lutz

Lisa Lutz is a talented young writer whose unusual first book, The Spellman Files, went on my ‘keeper shelf’.  Her second book, Curse of the Spellman’s is now an Edgar nominee for 2009.  The exceedingly quirky, dysfunctional and paranoid Spellman family is what makes these books.  Lutz has an unusual writing style that can take a bit of getting used to.  Some will find it annoying.  Since the stories are told in the first person by middle daughter Isabel, Izzy to most, it seems to be a natural extension of her personality to me.  This is a family that keeps dossiers rather than scrapbooks and paranoia is bred into their genetic code.  Come along for a fun ride, but please note, while keeping your hands and feet inside the moving vehicle at all times helps, reading the first two Spellman books first helps a LOT more.

Izzy is finishing up her court ordered counseling for violating a restraining order and taking an extended break from the family investigation business.  The fact that in 12 sessions she has discussed nothing that matters is a point of pride.  Izzy is living in a tiny apartment, an expensive proposition in San Francisco.  She tends bar for friend Milo at the Philosopher’s Club.  Milo feels it’s about time Izzy quit drifting and went back to work, so he forces her to take a job for his buddy Ernie Black.  Ernie thinks his wife Linda might be cheating on him with another man.  He loves her and doesn’t want to lose her, so he needs Izzy to find out if his suspicions are right so they can get counseling or something.  Seems simple enough.  Just to make sure she gets the job done, Milo cuts her hours.

Izzy is depressed.  Really depressed.  Her much younger sister, Rea, is on the outs with former police inspector Henry Stone and his girl friend Maggie, a defense attorney.  Thing is, Izzy has ‘a thing’ for Henry and has for a long time, but she actually likes Maggie – sort of.  Rea hates Maggie and is doing her level best to make her and Henry miserable.  Henry keeps calling Izzy to do a Rea ‘extraction’.

Luckily, her brother, a successful attorney, is going overseas for a vacation and asks Izzy to house sit for him.  He leaves a whole bunch of rules in the vain hope of preserving some privacy from his nosy family who have made prying into each other’s business an honored art form.  Hell, she’s 31 years old.  Yeah, he’s older, but not THAT much, and richer – ok a whole lot richer because she dead broke, but she’s an adult dammit!  Or she’s struggling to be.  So naturally she drinks the forbidden 18 year old scotch and sleeps in his bed and throws a party in his house to celebrate the end of her mandatory counseling.

Ernie calls and Izzy is tracking Linda to a perfectly innocent lunch with her friend Sharon.  Then they go shopping and Sharon buys Linda a very expensive scarf that she doesn’t seem to want and returns as soon as Sharon leaves.  That’s strange.  But at least there’s no ‘other man’ and Linda and Sharon didn’t seem like more than friends.

The story has so many different threads it’s hard to follow them all.  Knowing his sister, David plays her.  She knows he isn’t overseas and once he’s home with a broken arm, she knows something is very wrong.  It might be very hard to explain why she’s squatting in his basement apartment.  True, she’s sleeping mostly on the bus and train, and her car keeps moving at night, but it beats the hellhole she’d been living in even if she does have to sneak in and out.

Then there’s the fact Izzy takes a job with a PI firm run by a man her dad hates.  Now mom and dad are so pissed off they won’t speak to her.  But neither will Morty her 84 year old attorney who is living alone since his wife moved to Miami.  Seems he promised they’d move somewhere hot when he retired and he’s refusing to honor the deal.  She convinces his skateboard champ turned shop owner grandson to take away his car, but that means she carting him around.

So all Izzy has to do is, finish her second round of 12 counseling sessions with her new psychologist, get Morty to go to Florida with his wife, figure out how Rea cheated on the PSAT’s, figure out who steals her car every night, why two thugs threatened her and why some political flack offered her money to stop tailing Linda and Sharon, and how she can tell Ernie he isn’t really married, and her brother she’s living in his basement, and please, please, please, get just one good night’s sleep.  And oh yes, she has to decide if she’s going back to work for Spellman Investigations or she’ll never be allowed back – and her dad gave her a VERY firm deadline.  But mostly, she really has to figure out what the hell is going on with Linda and Sharon, not for Ernie, for herself.  If she can’t, then maybe she should just look for different line of work and forget about Spellman Investigations.

Unlike your typical cozy or humorous mystery, there really isn’t any ‘big’ mystery in the Spellman books.  There’s lots of family on family spying and head games and acute, advanced nosiness and mini-mysteries.  The streets aren’t littered with killers, or bodies, or even serious criminals – excluding politicians and shady PI’s.  So why are these books sold as mysteries?  Well, it’s kind of like Carl Hiaasen meets The In-Laws, the original with Peter Faulk and Alan Arkin.  It’s a weird story full of snoopy people that’s always twisting and turning a half a dozen different story lines all at the same time.  A Salvador Dali painting in a genre full of plein air.  Full of questions, small questions maybe, but that’s what life is mostly full of, little things.  Lutz just makes them really fun, sometimes a little sad and touching, but always entertaining.

This is not a book for everyone and the writing style is not a traditional narrative.  Fans of classic mysteries will likely find it annoying or distracting, so trying out one of the paperbacks or reading a chapter online would be a good idea before buying the books.  It takes an off-beat sense of humor, a little patience with the jumpy syntax, the transcripts, and the persistent use of footnotes, but give it a chance and it will engage you and draw you into the crazy world of the Spellman’s and make you laugh.  Mostly it’s just a really entertaining read.

My Grade: A- (4.6)

Who would enjoy this book: Fans of Carl Hiaasen, Tim Dorsey, and Christopher Moore.  My rating would be PG-13.

PS – I read the hardcover, but I have noticed complaints on the difficulty of reading the footnotes in electronic format on ebook readers.   I can see where it might be an issue, but I don’t use one and can’t offer any insight, just a warning to be aware of it.

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