Last Word layered with volumes of fun


By Lisa Lutz

Simon & Schuster, 2013; $25; 336 pp.

Six years ago, a quirky mystery novel, The Spellman Files, became a surprise bestseller. People magazine called its heroine, Isabel Spellman, “the love child of Dirty Harry and Harriet the Spy.” The author, Lisa Lutz, who had reached her mid-thirties without having accomplished much of anything beforehand, embraced opportunity and has written five more Spellman novels, the latest just released as The Last Word.

The Spellman family runs a private investigation agency in San Francisco. Mistrust is an occupational hazard which they bring home by following and taping each other, sometimes leading to bribery or blackmail.

Among the Spellmans, love means never being alone: “recreational surveillance” is the family sport. Somehow, it leads to solidarity however strange.

Six years ago, Isabel, then 29, described herself as a “recovering delinquent”— a sometime vandal and occasional car thief, arrested half a dozen times since her mid-teens — offering as an excuse that she had been working for Spellman Investigations since she was 12.

Her mother’s excuse is simpler, “We didn’t read any of those parenting books.” A self-help guide suggests making a list of all transgressions over the last 10 years, and Isabel thinks, “For me that could have taken upwards of a year.”

But Isabel is calming down. She no longer prefers windows to doors as entryways, and she does not inadvertently wear dresses inside out because, almost to her surprise, she is now the head of Spellman Investigations, through the investment of a grateful client whom she saved from a scheming wife.

Yes, Isabel has to calm down. She is used to following, not leading. She throws up her hands at having to reconcile bank statements. The business is in decline, and the shag carpet of the office “is so worn down you can slip on it in footwear without treads.”

Parents Albert and Olivia sulk at losing control of their business; older brother David retreats to fatherhood and marriage to a lawyer who keeps pastry in her pockets; younger sister Rae bills herself a “Conflict Resolution Specialist” to justify carrying out acts of revenge for clients; former boyfriend, police inspector Henry Stone, has found someone else and tells her, “If only you were a little bit more normal.”

The new woes of the grateful client, venture capitalist Edward Slayter, snap first Isabel and then the rest of the Spellmans back into focus. No violence or mayhem — The Last Word is a Spellman mystery — but extortion and embezzlement.

In the end, good and quirky beats bad and twisted. For a sixth time, Lisa Lutz has made the finding out how so much marvelous fun.

Benjamin Franklin Martin is the Price Professor of History at LSU. His most recent book is Years of Plenty, Years of Want: France and the Legacy of the Great War (2013)