I suspect my commitment-phobia has branched into new areas of my life. I’ve grown hesitant to start new series, especially mysteries. I suppose it is a little unfair to expect the qualities I fall in love with in the first couple of books continue, but there it is: I do. I stuck with Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder through many ups and downs, but Marcia Muller’s fallen apart on her latest, Janet Evanovich started recycling Stephanie Plum plots by book 8 (if not sooner), Sue Grafton had a long stretch of ‘meh’ in the middle of her alphabet series, Parker’s Spenser really never regained steam after book eight or so… I could go on. But won’t.
However, Lisa Lutz is showing serious series promise that might have me looking at a longer relationship. She is maintaining the laughs, clever structure, plotting and character development from the first couple of books with book three, Revenge of the Spellmans. (Check with me after book six, which came out this year).
A short synopsis (so necessary for me and these series): Isabel is attempting to maintain her independence from the family and the business, living on her own and working as a bartender. Unfortunately, noise in her tiny apartment leaves her progressively more sleep-deprived until she hits on a solution–becoming a squatter. She’s still in court-ordered therapy, with therapists #1 and #2. Her parents are pressuring her to take over the business and using some particularly underhanded techniques. Her friends are going through troubles of their own–Henry is dating, Milo refers her to a friend worried about a cheating wife and Morty seems to be aging rapidly after his wife goes out of town. Rae is up to her usual shenanigans and, perhaps not coincidentally, Isabel is being blackmailed–and the blackmailer wants her to wash her dad’s car.
Her unusual narrative structure is still in force. For those new to Lutz, that means she writes in the voice of her main character Isabel Spellman, and the book takes the form/structure of a complicated dossier with narrative, notations, flashbacks, transcripts and interviews. There are a few less footnotes, for those who were annoyed by book two, but this time there is a delightful appendix, including an absolutely hilarious bit with Petra pretending her husband has been abducted by aliens. The only negative note about the appendix is that it is grouped as a whole (instead of ‘A,’ ‘B,’ etc), so if you actually flip to reference it, your eyes might accidentally graze a spoilery bit.
“I kill time until I meet my old (1) friend Morty for lunch.
(1) Old in the literal sense. He’s eighty-four.“
I absolutely love Lutz’ somewhat dysfunctional humor. She builds up to absurdity instead of starting at full speed. As one of the therapists discovers, when you spell it out, it does sound very peculiar to have all these things happen to one individual, but when you are in it from the beginning, it makes a strange sort of sense. For instance, Isabel needs backup on a stakeout, but because she is pretending she isn’t interested in detection, she asks Morty instead, who throws in his own twist:
“‘I invited Gabe. When he heard we were going on a stakeout, he just had to come along. He lives in the Mission, right on the way, so don’t tell me it’s inconvenient.’
‘You don’t just invite someone along on surveillance. It’s not like going to a movie.’
Morty paused to think about it. ‘Actually, it kind of is.’“
There continues to be trouble between Rae and Henry, initially sparked by Rae’s not-so-stealth campaign against Henry’s new girlfriend, Maggie. Henry resorts to using Isabel as the go-between and extractor when he isn’t speaking to Rae or when she ‘drops by’ his house for a movie marathon.
“Four hours after Henry’s original phone call, I accomplished the task originally asked of me: I extracted Rae from his residence.”
Then there is the mystery of her brother David’s vacation, ostensibly to Italy, although Isabel is unable to find evidence that he has actually gone. She enlists his ex-wife and her best friend Petra in the search:
“‘He wouldn’t go to Italy without that suit,’ she said
‘Why?’ I replied.
‘Because he’s madly in love with it.’
‘Creepy,’ I said. ‘Could he be cheating on it with another suit?’
‘It’s possible,’ she replied. ‘But unlikely.’“
A short chapter on fifteen-year old Isabel resentfully interviewing for a job with her parents (which she’d already been working at for three years) had me chortling out loud. A short segment, just for my own giggles:
“Dad eyed my outfit, debating whether he should call the whole thing off then and there, but opted in that moment to continue with the show.
‘Mr. Melman, a pleasure meeting you,’ I said. (2)
‘It’s Spellman. Have a seat, Isabel. Can I get you anything?’
‘I could use a coffee,’ I replied.
‘Refuse the coffee, Izzy.’
‘If you don’t want to serve me coffee, then don’t offer it.’
‘Just say ‘No, thank you,’ Isabel.’
‘No, thank you, Isabel’ (3)
‘Sit down,’ Dad said, this time in a far more hostile tone.”
(2) One of our neighbors at the time kept getting our name wrong. David and I started calling our mom and dad Mr. and Mrs. Melman when we were in the mood to annoy.
(3) I am well aware this is an incredibly old joke.
Nice mix of mysteries both large and small, character development that shows promise for future books, general laughs; all mean it is highly recommended as a fun, quick read. It should appeal to fans of early Stephanie Plum (I say that as a fan of the early books). Though I started with some nervousness, I shouldn’t have worried. Dive in and enjoy.