I am unabashedly a huge, nerdy fan of detective fiction, and more specifically, the private eye subgenre. From Sherlock Holmes to Shawn Spencer, Hercule Poirot to Precious Ramotswe, private investigators get to solve crimes without being beholden to the pesky rules and interference of an official police department. Let the danger and mayhem ensue.
In my travels, I tend to come across people who are also fans of the literary loose cannons of private eye stories. I “come across” these people because I see them reading and obtrusively grill them on their interests and opinions when it comes to books, but that’s beside the point. People love private eyes! Invariably, this conversation leads me to ask, “Have you read Lisa Lutz?”
The answer thus far has always been no. How can this be? She’s a best-selling author, and these are fellow die-hard PI fans. Then I remember that I didn’t read Lutz until a year ago, when my friend Dawn shoved Lutz’s first book under my nose and insisted I read it. I did, and I never looked back.
This is a public service announcement. Attention, lovers of PI fiction. Lisa Lutz’s Spellman Series is the best private investigator anthology you’re not reading.
The Spellmans are a family of brilliant, intrusive lunatics who run a private investigation firm out of their San Francisco home. Our narrator is Isabel Spellman, the middle child of the family, a woman in her late twenties who stretches the “functioning” part of functioning alcoholic and is forced to contend with a perfect older brother, a teenage sister who is frighteningly smart and insanely deceitful, and parents who are also her bosses and have never really trusted her, personally or professionally.
Isabel narrates in non-linear first person, and I am not exaggerating when I say she is the most hilarious original voice I have read in a very long time. Put Christopher Moore’s style in a blender with the multiple storylines of an Alexander McCall Smith novel and the oddball supporting players of Janet Evanovich, and you have some idea what you’ll get once you start reading Lutz’s books. Since we are reading Isabel’s diaries, she footnotes most of her entries, and the footnotes themselves are funnier than some entire books. Isabel as a character is unconventionally ambitious, rebellious, and knows that it doesn’t matter that people only have two feet, there is always another shoe that can drop. She also drinks lots of scotch.
The cases Isabel investigates during the course of each book vary from as serious as finding a missing teenager, to as mundane as following a cheating husband, to as bizarre as a man who just wants Isabel to make sure nothing in his house has been moved. Whatever Isabel is investigating, you can count on a few misadventures along the way, but ultimately, her dogged determination will lead to the truth.
Lutz writes Isabel as an imperfect, sometimes misguided investigator without making her bumbling, and Isabel never lucks into the answers. Despite her foibles, she is a great investigator, which is important in making her an appealing character you can root for.
However, what makes the Spellman Series a real standout is the interpersonal relationships inside the Spellman family. These people spend their entire lives trying to keep secrets from each other while simultaneously going to obsessive lengths to discover what the others are hiding. If you thought your mother was annoying, imagine if she put you under round-the-clock surveillance just to see if you have a boyfriend, or if your little sister thought recreationally invading your privacy was just a fun hobby. There is nothing sacred in the Spellman family, and there is also nothing precious or sentimental about their love for each other. To them, love and information gathering are synonymous, and blackmail is a healthy way for parents to bond with their children.
There are currently five Spellman novels, and it is refreshing to read a series where characters grow with each installment. Desires change, life circumstances evolve, people die, kids grow up, parents age, babies are born, teenagers start crusades to free inmates from prison. Life does not freeze in the Spellmans’ world, which means each character is open to all kinds of zany new adventures. Just when you think you know what to expect from Isabel and the Spellmans, they defy your expectations and reveal another wonderful aspect of their characters.
Though I am a big proponent of ebooks for financial and environmental reasons, for Lisa Lutz, I would suggest buying (or checking out from the library) the physical book. The footnotes translate poorly to ebook format (there’s a lot of toggling back and forth) and you don’t want to miss out on them.
Lutz’s Isabel Spellman is without a doubt the best PI fiction you’re not reading, and even if you’re not a detective savant, the humor in these books transcends the genre. Once you start this series, you will devour all five books and long for more. I guarantee it. If you don’t, just write me an email, and I will refund however much time you spent reading the book. Happy investigating!