The Spellman Files by Lisa Lutz is the current selection of the San Francisco Reads program. The choices have a decided bias toward Bay Area writers (Z.Z. Packer, Andrew Sean Greer, Amy Tan, Tamim Ansary, but not (yet) Michael Chabon). Of those somewhere in the vicinity of mystery novels, I enjoyed Rupert Holmes’s Swing, but bogged down in Doug Dorst’s Alive in Necropolis. In that Isabel (Izzy) Spellman, her father, and her mother are all licensed private investigators, and her father’s brother is a retired policeman, when I began The Spellman Files, I thought it was a mystery novel.
There is a disappearance Izzy is assigned to investigate, and eventually solves, but The Spellman Files, and its sequel, Curse of the Spellmans, has multiple disappearances that are eventually solved. There is a lot of PI procedural detail in both novels, but both are more family comedies (with a somewhat extended family, a bartender and a police detective) more than mysteries.
At once the funniest and most sinister aspect of the family of professional snoops (and one too young to be licensed) is their suspicion of and surveillance of each other. Familial solidarity exists, but when and how it will be manifested are unpredictable, at least to Izzy.
When the retired policeman from whom she has sublet an apartment moves back in, Izzy takes refuge in the attic of her parents’ house at 1799 Clay Street (at the western edge of Nob Hill, east of Pacific Heights). Izzy becomes suspicious of a man who moves in next door. The blandness of his name, John Brown, makes running online investigation of him difficult. Since he initially strikes her as possible future ex-boyfriend material, she wants to run a background check on him. She keeps trying to get into his locked study, which ensures that he is not going to tell her his Social Security number.
Eventually, he gets a restraining order and has her arrested for violating it. Izzy is arrested five times over the course of her investigation, and spends time in holding cells either because her father has had her arrested or her parents are having disappearances (the family name for “vacations”). Her very well-paid brother, the heretofore perfect David, is in a funk throughout the novel. Her younger sister, Rae, has a cache of cash, but can’t drive, even after turning 16.
Both Spellman daughters try the patience of Henry Stone, the SFPD detective who is accidentally run down by Rae at the start of the novel, before what was to be Rae’s first behind-the-wheel driving instruction. Izzy finds not just the new neighbor’s conduct, but also that of each of her family members, her bartender, and her best friend suspicious. She is not mistaken that things are amiss for them, and is not wrong in all her surmises, but she tends not to see the forest for the trees, and her chronic (hereditary?) distrust frequently leads her to mistaken inferences.
I won’t try to explain the surveillance her mother assigns her to, a recurrence of vandalism. I will mention that all three Spellman women are involved in vandalizing motor vehicles.
My favorite character from the first novel, ex-boyfriend #9, and her friends, a black gay couple of actors who live in Berkeley, return in small parts, just above cameo size. And her landlord/roommate Bernie provides some of the geriatric outrageousness her Uncle Ray did in the first novel.
I zipped through reading both novels, laughing frequently at the sardonicness of most of the characters (Lutz does not give Izzy all the good lines) and the mix of reports in detectiveese, transcripts of covert recordings, lists, and memos. I find some of the footnotes funny and am glad to have hardly anything about episodes of “Get Smart” (though these are replaced with too much “Dr. Who”), but think that there are too many cutesy footnotes. Oddly, I don’t tire of Rae’s appalling consumption of Fruit Loops and other forms of sugar. I was fine with the decrease in reflections about ex-boyfriends (or prospective ex-boyfriends…)
Along with being very funny, Lutz also deserves praise for not leaving loose ends. Considering how many “mysteries” (in the sense of patterns that arouse Izzie’s suspicion rather than of statutory offenses) are going, how many narrative balls Lutz is juggling, I was impressed that she did not drop any (got them all back in the box). Knowing that two more installments of the series have been published and another is contracted, I infer that Izzy’s career of snooping is not over, though she has taken a moratorium from working for the family business at the end of the novel to think about growing up and what she would do if she grew up.
Lutz has specified that the books should be read in order, and Curse of the Spellmans contains numerous “spoilers” of The Spellman Files for anyone foolish enough to disobey Lutz’s command (though those who don’t look at footnotes might escape and go back to the predecessor novel in the series).
Though there are no shootouts, the main mystery in each of the two volumes involves real danger, and the solution to the disappearances (not in the special Spellman sense) in the second volume was more of a surprise to me than the disappearance in the first one (the core “mystery”). I guess that some mystery mavens are disappointed by the Spellman books, but those looking for zany family comedies are pleasured by them. I don’t want to burn out, so will not plunge on into Revenge of the Spellmans for a while, but look forward to reading it later on.