The Spellman Files by Lisa Lutz
Book 1 in the Isabel Spellman series
Read: 1–9 October 2010
Isabel Spellman, age 28, has worked for her parents' detective agency since she was a kid. She has a long list of ex-boyfriends (she keeps an actual list) and an even longer juvenile record. She is very good at her job, but when her parents put her under 24-hour surveillance to find out who her new boyfriend is, Izzy has had enough. She agrees to do one last job for the agency, but soon discovers that the case her mother gives her is decades old and practically unsolvable...
The family that puts the fun in dysfunctional
This line can be found on the back cover of my edition, and I think it sums up the book nicely. The Spellmans are a crazy bunch, always spying on each other, blackmailing each other and bribing each other. But despite the family wars and general snarkiness, it is evident that they all love each other, just like a normal family. In fact, the craziness never feels overdone or over the top.
Isabel Spellman is a great character; strong, smart and sarcastic with a history of juvenile delinquency. She left her criminal days (and her drinking problem) behind when she realised she had become a rolemodel to her 14 year younger sister Rae, and as of late has also come to realise that what her family does isn't always what is considered normal. Rae is a real hoot; a sugar addict, always at war with live-in uncle Ray (whom she's named after) and considers 'recreational surveillance' her favourite past-time. David, their older brother, is a lawyer and quite the snob, and parents Albert and Olivia are just a little bit whacko.
The book is very funny, but not just for the sake of being funny. Nor is it chick-lit cute, even though the cover might suggest otherwise. The main mystery, Isabel's last case, is very interesting when we finally hear about it, with a solution I never predicted. The first half of the book is dedicated to setting up the backstory of the characters, and we get a really good understanding of how Isabel has come to be the person she is today.
The narrative shifts back and forth between the past and the present, between different themes, and there are lists and transcripts scattered throughout the book. This might sound confusing, but it didn't bother me at all. I had no trouble following the story, and the different lists (like the list of Isabel and Petra's unpunished crimes: summer 1993) and transcripts from surveillance tapes (like the transcript of staged dental appointment #1) are absolutely hilarious. The latter is also a clever way of incorporating conversations that the first-person narrator didn't hear.
Bottom line: The Spellman Files is a witty mystery with quirky characters and a unique writing style. I'd definitely recommend it.
My rating: A very solid 5 out of 6
The Spellman Files
The Spellman Files (2007)
Curse of the Spellmans (2008)
Revenge of the Spellmans (2009)
The Spellmans Strike Again (2010)