Most helpful critical review
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
High on Fun, Low on Plot and Suspense
on June 8, 2010
Book Club Review
THE SPELLMAN FILES
by Lisa Lutz
Our book club's book for June was THE SPELLMAN FILES, by Lisa Lutz. Several of us had heard about the series, but none of us had read it, and we thought it sounded like great fun. Having read a few books that were later in series and having been disappointed in them, we decided we'd start with the first book of a series, which is why we chose this one (instead of a later one in the series).
The Spellmans are a San Francisco family of private investigators that spends their days spying on people and on one another. Dad is a retired police officer, and Mom is his partner. From the earliest days, the children - overachieving David, precocious Rae, and tough-girl Isabel/Izzy (who's also the narrator) - learn how to "surveill" people. As the book opens, Izzy is telling her family story to the detective who's investigating the disappearance of her baby sister.
It's a little difficult to describe the book in more detail than this. It is essentially a series of anecdotes about Izzy's boyfriends (currents and exes), life in the Spellman house, and the extent to which the Spellmans go in order to spy on one another. Mom and Dad routinely run background checks on Izzy's boyfriends, and all the Spellmans have a penchant for breaking the headlights and taillights of cars, even when they belong to family members, because doing so makes a car easier to tail at night.
The Spellmans are functional-but-dysfunctional in the prototypically American way, and they're all drawn with broad strokes. The family dynamics are captured well (for those of us who thought the lengths the Spellmans go to, in order to keep tabs on one another, are insane, we had only to reminisce about our own families to see the truth in the book). The book is a little self-consciously wacky, but for the most part we thought it clever, and it certainly does deliver on its promise of being a light, fun read.
The problem we found is that there really is no STORY until the second half of the book, when Izzy gets pulled into a cold case surrounding a young man with a domineering mother who disappeared years earlier. That mystery is pretty good, but it doesn't take sleuths to get the answers; it's really more Izz making a complete pain of herself until someone decides to tell her what's going on. The frame story of the disappearance of Rae - which is the ostensible reason for Izzy telling her life story - just doesn't work; no investigating police officer wants to hear all about the suspect's ex-boyfriends for hours at a time. So, in this sense, THE SPELLMAN FILES reads more as a sitcom than as a novel, which is just fine if you can have realistic expectations about what the book is and what it isn't.
Of the 11 who attended this meeting, 6 said they'd read more by this author; 5 felt they'd overdosed on the book and didn't want to go back for more. Those who liked it enjoyed the humor and the herky-jerky narrative; those who didn't like were annoyed by the pages without any story and the family dynamics (particularly young Rae, a ten-year-old blackmailer and sugar addict who didn't ring true). At the end of the day, it was certainly a different book; I personally might be willing to try another book in the series to see if the mysteries improve.