Saturday, July 26, 2008

Books: The Spellman Files - Lisa Lutz

Reading Week (all 12 days of it) ends with a very pleasant surprise. Despite a rocky start, Lisa Lutz' The Spellman Files proved to be a very entertaining read.

Although the book details the wacky goings on of a completely dysfunctional family of PI's, the central viewpoint character is Isabel Spellman, described by one reviewer as the love child of Dirty Harry and Harriet the Spy, by another as part Bridget Jones, part Columbo. I just liked her for having an obsession with old Get Smart episodes.

Spellman's whole family, mom and dad, big bro David, Isabel and little sis Rae are all PI's. Even Uncle Ray does his turn for Spellman Investigations, which is run out of the family home, a stately manor in San Francisco. Unfortunately, all three kids are off-kilter to one degree or another. David's the perfect child, who left the family firm to go into a well-paying job as a lawyer and source for a lot of the family's cases. He rebels against being perfect in ways that are predictable, but restrained at the same time.

Isabel is a real bit of work. A wild child, Izzie spent most of her teen years barely evading juvie hall. Put to work as a twelve-year old, she developed a skewed view of the world, especially as it pertained to personal privacy. She wanted it, assumed nobody else did. Rae turns out to be just Isabel put on fast-forward, doing her first surveillance work for the firm at age eight.

I know farmers often get their kids working at an early age. To me, that's reasonable and healthy. For a family that works and lives together, and are in the spying game, this kind of early child labour should be deemed illegal. Funny, but illegal.

The book itself is told in non-linear fashion. In fact, the opening scene is not caught up with, until three quarters of the book has passed by. Just as an aside, the opening paragraph had me worried. (paraphrasing) Her boots make echoing sounds as she tries to evade those trying to track her. She then makes a mental note not to wear these shoes if there's going to be a pursuit.

What woman confuses boots and shoes in the same paragraph?

At any rate, the featured case of the book doesn't really get started until the book is almost half-done. The solution to that case is obvious a hundred pages from the finish line, but tortuously, the book continues to wind down as the family dynamic of the Spellmans blows up. Sounds depressing, and it is on a human level.

But this is a VERY funny book. Lutz throws everything against the wall, chapter after chapter. A lot of it sticks to the funny rib. A fair bit of it shows the effects of a first-time novel writer. For example, footnotes denoting Get Smart's KAOS stands for The International Organization of Evil is amusing the first time. Not so much the two or three times after that. The over-use of footnotes wears out its welcome too. But boy, does the palaver between Rae and Izzie ring true. I've seen two bright kids of differing ages go at each other just like the two girls do.

The book ends sadly in at least one respect. Rebounding from that tragedy, Lutz offers up a hope for the future (already written in the form of Curse of the Spellmans) and I intend to follow her up on that offer.

All told, I got through eight books in the 12 days, work commitments and a day of computer re-arranging stopping me from doing more reading. But it was a good reading week this summer. I've still got the Samurai Girl series by Carrie Asai, military SF series books by Jack Campbell and Elizabeth Moon, Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian and one of John Zakour's wacky SF books atop the reading pile. Then there's a new Artemis Fowl book by Eoin Colfer, all those Monk books by Lee Goldberg, ...

Really, Reading Week never ends, does it?

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