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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Spellman Files (trade, $14) by Lisa Lutz

The task of a first novel, especially one that the author hopes will burgeon into a series, is large. The author must establish all the main characters, enough of their back story (but not too much) that we become engaged, find a quirk or gimmick (not mandatory, but highly recommended), and throw in a plot or two. The cast of Lutz’s first novel is large, and ergo, there is a lot of back story to cover and not a single main character goes un-quirked.

The charm of the Spellmans (perhaps a title the author might think about for a future book), which refers to both a private investigation firm and a family, is mighty. In a benignly dysfunctional way, Mr. and Mrs. Spellman, accomplished lawyer son John-Boy -- I mean, David – Spellman, incorrigible and manipulating youngster Rae Spellman, wastrel uncle Ray Spellman, and narrator 28-year-old Isabel Spellman investigate cases…and each other. They can’t help the latter. Although I must admit to finding it a bit tedious at times, having ma and pa tailing big sis, wastrel uncle tailing big sis, big sis tailing little sis, everyone tailing wastrel uncle is a cute idea, but a little goes a long way. And let’s not get into the illegal use of computer database information to find each other.

After a lengthy introductory process, the reader gets to see Isabel handle a meatier case for the firm, an unsolved one involving a missing teenager. Usually I don’t even try to solve the mystery, or sometimes I guess that it might be the disorder du jour – for instance, “I bet it’s Munchausen by proxy disease,” or “The solution’s in the religious painting in the Louve.” I unintentionally guessed the solution to the case of the missing teenager very early on. However, I never hold it against the author when I can solve the mystery if it’s an interesting story. And this one is worthy.

If it sounds like I’m being too negative about this book, I need to correct that impression right now. I really enjoyed The Spellman Files. I enjoyed Isabel and her ex-boyfriends, past, present, and future. I enjoyed the footnotes. Seriously, when was the last time you read a mystery with footnotes that wasn’t about Sherlock Holmes. I have a thing about (against) precocious children in books, but I love Rae Spellman.

I am looking forward to reading the next in the series, Curse of the Spellmans (hardcover, $25), which just arrived at the store.

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