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Lisa Lutz
The Spellman Files
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2011

Simon & Schuster
US Trade Paperback Reprint
ISBN 978-1-416-53240-8
Publication Date: 02-12-2008
378 Pages ; $14
Date Reviewed: 05-24-2011

Index:  Mystery  General Fiction

Readers of this website might well think that I like every book that comes my way. But the fact of the matter is that I have a Sturgeonesque filter that cuts out a fair amount of wheat as well as chaff. I may have been sent all four novels by Lisa Lutz at one time or another, and knowing myself, I took one look at whatever the cover may have been and put them quickly in the "Not for me" pile.

But after reading her collaboration with David Hayward, 'Heads You Lose,' I sought out all of her books. The covers still induce a certain cringe factor. But her first novel, 'The Spellman Files' is a superbly-written example of writing as acting. With a wonderfully raw, funny, pitch-perfect voice, Lutz grabs our attention and makes us want to be with Izzy Spellman every reading moment. It's the written equivalent of a comedic command performance.

Isabel Spellman is the oldest daughter in the Spellman family detective agency. Her older brother, David, who is by her admission, perfect, is a lawyer, while her much-younger sister, Rae, is problematic. Perhaps not so much as Izzy, but it's a contest to be sure. Their father, Albert Spellman, was once with the San Francisco Police Department — a family tradition — until an injury sidelined him and sent him to meet his wife, Olivia and eventually start the family business, Spellman investigations.

Enough history.

This is not a historical novel, nor is it a murder mystery.

'The Spellman Files' is an amazingly clever comedy that explores the underbelly of the average American family with a smart voice that is a joy to read. As Izzy, Lisa Lutz tells her story in an engaging, frank prose style that is compulsively readable. Izzy is a character whom you just want to hear talk, and it really doesn't matter what she is talking about. The opening portions of the novel lay out the family history as they introduce the mystery. Lutz is a master of sidelining the reader, and her storytelling is similar to a set of nesting dolls. She starts with one scene, then delves into just a part of that scene. You can't help but turn the pages as fast as possible to find out what happens next.

The star here is Lutz's prose voice. Forget about the goofy or girly packaging. Izzy is a rough and ready protagonist, prone to ill-advised aggression, which generally gets her in trouble. The novel is all-attitude, and it's an attitude with a wide appeal. Yes, the language here would earn the movie an "R" rating. That's a big plus. Readers who prefer "a bit of the old ultra-violence," as Anthony Burgess put it in 'A Clockwork Orange,' will find that Lutz delivers in the feel of violence without tankards of blood. Lutz pumps up family dynamics into a Battle Royale. It's all a lot of fun, with a sharp edge of honesty that makes it sting just enough to feel emotionally true.

But Lutz also knows how to deliver a good story. The mystery that unravels in 'The Spellman Files' is every bit the match for Izzy's voice; perfectly so, since this is a story about a family. Lutz is willing to put her characters in peril, and even if the only danger is that someone might wake up in an embarrassing spot, well, Izzy's voice makes sure we feel that keenly. She conveys the kind of brusque affection in a tight family with the kind of funny dialogue that real families use to evoke deep emotions. She makes this all look easy, and that is the best marker of her skill

In 'The Spellman Files,' Lutz effortlessly combines high quality sass with a low-key approach. She tosses off snappy dialogue as if she were pitching paper airplanes from the nosebleed seats in Candlestick Park, and smart remarks like paper sacks full of peanuts. 'The Spellman Files' is a smart, sweet surprise. You'll finish this book and be glad there are three sequels. Give yourself a rest between books, and if we're lucky there will be even more.

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