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Lisa Lutz
Trail of the Spellmans
Simon and Schuster
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-1-451-60812-0
Publication Date: 02-28-2012
374 Pages; $25
Date Reviewed: 04-10-2012
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2012

Index: Mystery General Fiction  

Isabel Spellman's life is a conflux of contrasts. Her family is sweet and charming, but tough and annoying. She still lives, sort of, with her Mom and Dad; also in the "units'" house is Demetrius, once in prison for murder but freed with their help in "Document #4." '('The Spellmans Strike Again') Her little sister Rae, once an occasionally charming, overachieving brat, is now a way-too-headstrong college student. Isabel's brother, once an annoying fashion plate, is now married and has been transformed into an annoying doting father. Isabel's ex-boyfriend #13, Henry is neither boyfriend nor ex- enough to make things comfortable. Her life is upside down, and as 'Trail of the Spellmans' opens, she's the best-adjusted in the whole bunch — and she's got a story to tell.

That's the best news that readers could hope for, as Lisa Lutz is an uncompromising writer who uses every trick in the literary toolbox to entertain her readers, and get to the smart heart of an authentically American family. 'Trail of the Spellmans' finds Lutz in top form with Isabel involved in a series of oddly intersecting cases, and most of them involve her investigating her own family. Lutz is a superb storyteller, who keeps her style and story breezy and fun.

But don't let the continuous humor, the excellently paced plot and the entertaining characters fool you. Lutz slips in footnotes, appendices and lots of the tropes of highfalutin' litrachur for low-falutin' fun. This book is charming every second you read it, extremely funny, with excellent use of crude language at the right moments, and in the end offers some serious insights into fully-rounded characters. It's everything you want an utterly serious novel to be except serious.

'Trail of the Spellmans' finds the family hired out in two cases; helicopter parents who want the Spellmans to keep an eye on their perfectly normal daughter and a woman who wants her husband watched. Of course, neither pans out as planned, and the Spellmans end up watching one another as much as they do anyone else. Granny Spellman shows up to make lives miserable, but her unstoppable force has never quite fully hit the immovable rock that is the Spellman family. The problems for Isabel and her family seem to multiply while the solutions recede beyond reach.

The appeal of Lutz's novels is her smart, fun prose. Here's a woman who knows how to have fun with literary hi-jinks from experimental literature. Lutz uses them for humor and insight into the lives of her very everyday characters. There's never a dull-sentence or extra word, but as a reader you'll never even think about these things. You're just there with Isabel — and glad to be there.

The Spellman family is quirkily all-American, and in Lutz's prose, way too much fun to read about. Lutz takes what might at first seem to be a simple plot and runs it through the complex emotions and relationships we find in every family life. She makes it all seem real and utterly believable, this private investigating business and the family entwined in it. As you read, everything is crystal clear, but take a step or two back and you'll realize that Lutz has created a complicated and very crafty story.

'Trail of the Spellmans' has all the positive aspects of the other books in the series, but also adds some serious consequences for Isabel and her behavior while staying fully in character. It also sports a very nice cover re-design from the previous books, which have been re-issued with the new theme in mind. Lisa Lutz writes fun mysteries about a family of private investigators. She also writes complex, meta-fictional visions of an American family trying to survive in the 21st century. The real mystery here is how she is able to do both in the same books; and it's a question that you're not likely to ask after you finish this novel. Smart, pithy fun is hard to find. Enjoy this book and wait for the next one.

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