Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Review of The Spellmans Strike Again by Lisa Lutz

From The Advocate (Baton Rouge, LA) --

Fans of quirky series will be happy with new Spellmans book --

Mar 14, 2010 --

By Lisa Lutz
Simon & Schuster, $25; 388 pp.

Lisa Lutz is back with her fourth account of the quirky Spellman family, who have a private investigation business in San Francisco and live their work so thoroughly that they follow, tape-record, videotape and blackmail each other routinely. The average “stalker” is way out of their league: Think having Mike Hammer or Sam Spade for an uncle. Early in the series Lutz coined the term “recreational surveillance” to describe this irresistible impulse.

In The Spellmans Strike Again, Albert and Olivia, father and mother, are worrying about the loss of their retirement investments in the stock market and about the object of obsession each of their children has chosen. Only son David, an attorney known for squaring the papers on his desk, is courting Maggie Mason, an attorney known for carrying partially eaten baked goods in her pockets. Elder daughter Isabel, incipient alcoholic but in line to take over the business, is shacking up with Connor O’Sullivan, a loutish rugby-playing Irish bartender who comps her drinks. Younger daughter Rae, still in high school but since childhood the very definition of “recalcitrant,” haunts Henry Stone, a San Francisco police inspector who once dated Isabel and is so compulsively neat that he vacuums as guests eat potato chips.

As usual for Lutz, the plot is merely the scenery through which her screwy characters run amok. Here, Maggie Mason is engaged in pro bono work for convicts whose claims of innocence appear to have merit. Helping out, Rae and Isabel each adopt a case, with dueling T-shirts reading “FREE SCHMIDT” and “JUSTICE 4 MERRI-WEATHER” which they foist on any and all. Isabel is also investigating the case of a wayward butler/valet and trying to take down another private investigator, Rick Harkey, former homicide detective, now competitor of the Spellmans and always rumored corrupt.

Albert and Olivia are being intrusive, as expected, and secretive, thus suspicious. David and Henry are trying to be responsible — and tidy — but are so outnumbered.

The real fun and the reason these books have sold so well while acquiring a cult following is the personality of Isabel, who has been working cases for Spellman Investigations for 20 years, starting at age 12. Once a happy vandal, petty thief, breaker of rules for sport and all-around subversive, she now calls herself a “recovering delinquent.”

But which of those two words is paramount when the reaction to her planning is almost invariably, “Why is it that all your propositions are either illegal, ethically questionable, or at the very least offensive?” And when told, “Err on the conservative side,” she replies reflexively, “Don’t worry. I’ll err as usual.”

Isabel wonders, “Sometimes I can barely keep track of the galaxy of investigations, deceit, turmoil, clashes, and chaos that I travel through every day.” She recognizes the source: “And so, once again, there I was, sleep deprived, trapped with family, waiting for the nightmare to come to an end. My life in a nutshell.” At 32, this wise-ass has become wise. She even has a philosophy: “Over the course of a lifetime, people change, but not as much as you’d think. Nobody really grows up. At least that’s my theory; you can have your own.”

Isabel is either hard and sarcastic or brittle and poignant. If you think the former, you won’t enjoy the Spellman books, and you won’t like Lisa Lutz. If you think the latter, like me, you’ll want something good to happen for Isabel, and you’ll get your wish.

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