Lutz, Lisa. The Spellman Files.

NY: Simon & Schuster, 2007.

It’s always nice to discover a new private detective series, but this one is unusual in that investigation-for-hire is the family business. Isabel Spellman of San Francisco is in her late 20s now, and has been working for her mom and dad for sixteen years, surveiling people, doing background checks, tracing skips, and otherwise leading an unusual life for a young lady.

Well, “lady” in quotes, because Izzy also went through an extended period of drugs, alcohol, and other juvenile offenses, nor was she ever much of a student. In fact, private investigation is all she actually knows how to do, which gives her parents a considerable hold on her. She also has a two-year-older brother, David, who was always perfect, was always a good student, and covered for Izzy when she needed it (which was often), because he felt guilty. He worked for the family agency, too, when he was younger, but didn’t enjoy it. Then he went to law school, discovered he wasn’t actually responsible for his sister’s failings, and changed somewhat. There’s also Rae (named for her dying Uncle Ray, who then didn’t), who is twelve years younger than Isabel and began doing surveillance at age six. As you would expect, Rae, now fourteen, has grown up rather warped.

In fact, that’s the problem with this book. Everyone in the family is dysfunctional. They all have multiple locks on their bedroom doors. Mom and Dad tap Isabel’s phone. Izzy does background checks on the entire family of anyone she goes out with. And Rae’s hobbies are “recreational surveillance” of random pedestrians, and blackmailing other family members. You’re meant to feel sympathy for Isabel, of course, but that’s difficult when she’s constantly throwing her little sister up against a wall. And you’re expected to identify with Rae, too, but I would have put her in therapy long ago.

There’s also the more specific problem of the lack of any plot for the first half of the book, until Isabel takes on a very cold, supposedly unsolvable disappearance case as her parents’ price for allowing her to quit the family firm. And the solution to that one is something of a disappointment. And the other mystery, the disappearance of Rae, which is hinted at in the beginning but not really developed until much later in the narrative, isn’t really much of a mystery at all. All in all, it’s a good attempt, and there’s some amusing dialogue, and I will undoubtedly take a crack at the second book in the series, but it will have to be a considerable improvement over this one.

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