Book review: ‘The Spellman Files’ by Lisa Lutz

The Spellman FilesWhen I walk into the library, it’s typically with a purpose. Spending so much time on the bookish Internet means I usually have a shortlist of books I’d like to find and take home with me — or better yet, place on hold long before I darken the library’s doorstep.

But sometimes — very occasionally — I leave things up to chance. Live on the edge and . . . choose a random read without consulting a single review. Since I’ve methodically worked my way through many of my local branch’s limited supply of audios, I’m always on the lookout for something new — and the red cover of Lisa Lutz’s The Spellman Files spoke to me.

Isabel “Izzy” Spellman works in the family business: spying on people. As a group of private investigators working out of their home in downtown San Francisco, the Spellmans are used to delving into others’ secrets — and cataloging their own. At 28, Izzy lives in the loft of her childhood home with her parents and younger sister, Rae, a sass-mouthed teen who gets herself in scrapes.

The staff of Spellman Investigations is so good at what they do that it’s impossible to turn off . . . and Izzy herself wouldn’t know what privacy looked like if it smacked her in the face. Each family member is used to turning a deadbolt on their bedroom door and looking around corners to see if they’re being followed — and it’s never been a big deal. And when it comes to her line of work, Izzy is used to . . . um, circumventing the truth. With almost a dozen ex-boyfriends littering her past, she’s comfortable on her own — until she meets Daniel, a handsome dentist and tennis pro. Who thinks she’s a teacher. Because that’s what she told him.

As Izzy gets to know David and delves deeper into a 15-year-old cold case, her own family secrets come to light in the wake of a disappearance and endless trouble with Uncle Ray, noted gambler and drinker. As she struggles to keep everything from falling apart, Izzy will come to understand the true bonds of family — and whether she can ever really break free of the family business.

So yes. The Spellman Files. It is so. much. fun. I can’t remember the last time I was tooling around town, desperate for a few more errands to run so I could spend a little more time with this kooky crew. Izzy’s narrative voice is so wry, hilarious and sarcastic; my sense of humor to a T. As our narrator, the eldest Spellman daughter is so funny and realistic, and I loved the dynamic she shares with her parents and younger sister. In fact, Rae and Uncle Ray — her namesake — were two of my favorite characters in the book.

Though that would require me to choose a favorite. And I can’t do that.

I don’t read much mystery. For a true lover of the genre, The Spellman Files might not captivate the way it captivated me — but what I loved about the story was Lutz’s ability to plunk me in the middle of these dramas and give me full access to the chaos. Izzy speaks to us like we’re in on the joke, providing enough back-story on her eclectic family to keep us intrigued without overwhelming the reader. Young Rae was the perfect example of a character with personality bursting right out of her ears — and I loved it.

The book’s pace is brisk, marching us from putting out one fire to another. We’re told from the get-go that young Rae — who has recently become addicted to “recreational surveillance,” tailing strangers in alleyways — disappears. We also know that Uncle Ray, a cancer survivor, has a penchant for booze and ladies . . . and that the Spellmans are often required to retrieve him from his “lost weekends.” The pieces of a larger puzzle come together fairly easily, but I never felt like The Spellman Files was predictable. The shock of the cold case Izzy is working on wasn’t something I’d concluded on my own, though I can be a bit dense about these things.

What sent this book into awesome territory is absolutely the characters — and dialogue. Izzy’s interactions with Daniel had me giggling, and I loved a pivotal dinner table scene where Daniel meets the whole clan. Though the plot might not scream funny to you, I found this book downright hilarious. And when I learned it’s the first in a series, I actually clapped.

If reading has become a bit staid and boring for you, allow me to prescribe Lisa Lutz’s series. Described as “part Nancy Drew, part Dirty Harry,” The Spellman Files is the perfect cure for the humdrum winter reading months. I loved its San Francisco setting, too, and could imagine Izzy and Rae following strangers along the city’s curving streets. It was wickedly entertaining — and you can bet I’ll be grabbing the next one very soon.


4.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 1416532390 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor website
Audio copy borrowed from my local library


8 thoughts on “Book review: ‘The Spellman Files’ by Lisa Lutz

  1. I love that it affects the family in that fun way. Well ok, it wouldn’t be fun for them and is, I guess, like an OCD, but as part of a plot it sounds brilliant. One to keep in mind!

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