The Spellman Files: Document #1
Imagine Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy all grown up and ensconced in a family of private investigators who make Harriet's hijinks look positively professional. Voila --- you have Izzy Spellman. Simon & Schuster compares Izzy to such characters as Nancy Drew, Thursday Next and Stephanie Plum. But not one of those avatars of detective fiction comes close to the level of dysfunction that the Spellman family does --- and not one of them is being doggedly tailed by her own parents.
When a book this delightful lands in a reviewer's lap, it's like Christmas. I get to read it? And I get to keep it? And this is WORK? Golly gee willickers! (A phrase, I might add, that Izzy Spellman would never use without a schmear of sarcasm.) Lisa Lutz has delivered that rare thing: a debut novel that is not just fresh (so many of them are) but entertaining. Entertaining without being vapid. Smart without being pretentious.
Izzy, the sui generis and suitably jejune protagonist (she calls the background section of her narrative "Antebellum," which I love), is 28 years old and lives in the attic of her parents' San Francisco home. Albert and Olivia founded Spellman Investigations shortly after their marriage and invested their three children --- David, Izzy and 14-year-old Rae --- with the family methods, secrets and shortcomings.
The Spellmans seem to exist in an alternate universe where keeping tabs on your nearest and dearest via phone taps, tailing and garbage surveillance is not just the norm --- it's inhaled in utero. The youngest Spellman, Rae, decided that at age six she should be allowed to work:
"Rae begged for three days straight to be allowed on a surveillance job. The begging was relentless and inconsolable. It was the on-her-knees, clasped-naded, insistent whine of pleeeeeeasse kind of begging that continued for most of her waking hours. Eventually my parents gave in.
She was six. Six, I repeat. When my parents told me that Raw would be joining us the next day on the Peter Youngstrom surveillance, I suggested that they'd lost their f------ minds. My mother apparently had, shouting, 'You try! You try listening to that begging all day long! I'd rather have a toenail slowly removed than go through that again.' My father seconded that with, 'Two toenails.'''
Yes, the Spellmans put the "fun" in "dysfunction," playing off the castle in the air they've built as their family business to convince everyone around them that normalcy means never having to say "Sorry I steamed open your mail." The hook that this story hangs on is Izzy's slow but sure realization that her own love life's survival depends on leaving the family mindset --- even if not the family nest. Although the action flags and sags at times (it's not easy to maintain a fast-paced detective story based on the premise of a 14-year-old girl's disappearance in search of her alcoholic uncle), the need to know what Izzy will choose next will keep you turning the pages.
This isn't the end of the story --- not by a long, funny, poignant, sad, wacky shot. In fact, THE SPELLMAN FILES is just the first in a series. I consider that good news for those of us thwarted by not enough Harriet the Spy. Or Nancy Drew. Or any feisty, funny, fierce female protagonist who refuses to accept the status quo.
Reviewed by Bethanne Kelly Patrick on January 23, 2011